Family seeks answers after mentally ill man dies in Cobb custody

The family of a mentally ill man who was arrested in Cobb County for a probation violation and died in custody last month say they’re still waiting for answers about the circumstances of his death.

Reginald Wilson, 54, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, his family say. He was found unresponsive at the Cobb jail and later declared dead.

“For me as a sister, the only thing I want to determine is how he died,” said Monica Peltier. “If his death wasn’t wrongful, I’m fine with that, but I cannot assume it wasn’t.”

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office said the department is investigating Wilson’s death and could not provide detailed comment.

Advocates for the mentally ill have been sounding the alarm for years on the number of people with serious psychiatric problems that end up in jail or prison. Most states have more mentally ill people in custody than in hospitals, they say. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle that exacerbates crime and punishes the most vulnerable, they argue.

“We have effectively replaced our mental health system for the most severely ill with a criminal justice system,” said John Snook, the executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit. “As a result, we spend a huge amount of money providing care that it’s very clear is ineffective.”

It can also be deadly: An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that dozens of jail deaths in Georgia over the past decade were tied to mental illness, many of them preventable.

Wilson was sentenced to time at Augusta State Medical Prison and probation after a conviction stemming from false imprisonment and assault charges. After his release, he struggled to get back on his feet and was prone to “episodes” if he didn’t take his medication, his family said. Eventually, relatives helped him find work at a local body shop.

Cobb police say on Dec. 20, officers responded to a call and found Wilson wandering in the road outside WellStar Cobb Hospital, wearing scrubs and no shoes.

Officers brought Wilson back to the hospital, which had recently discharged him. When they discovered that he had an active warrant for violating his probation, they were “duty bound” to arrest him and bring him to the Cobb jail once he was cleared by doctors for release, said Sgt. Wayne Delk.

“We receive crisis intervention training, which does help us deal with people in crisis, whether that’s from mental illness or any other sort of trauma,” Delk said. “In this instance, we were dealing with someone who was in the roadway causing a hazard to himself and the public.”

Delk said Wilson was booked into the jail that same day.

More than a week later, on Dec. 29, Peltier said she received a call informing her of her brother’s death.

An autopsy was performed by the Cobb Medical Examiner, but the cause and manner of death are pending toxicology results. Without a death certificate, the family has been unable to obtain Wilson’s medical records and are getting no help from Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren, they say.

This isn’t the first time Warren has been criticized for what happens within the walls of the jail.

Warren currently faces a lawsuit from a former inmate whose hip was broken by a guard at the jail with an alleged history of abuse.

Last year, Cobb County paid $300,000 to WellStar to cover its legal fees stemming from a different wrongful death suit. That case was ultimately decided in Warren's favor, but Cobb was still on the hook for WellStar's legal costs.