Record numbers of people are dying in Georgia’s largest jails

The deaths have been attributed to drug overdoses, suicides and other causes in the state’s five biggest lockups amid a trio of crises

Carin Hatchett loved eating strawberry-flavored Starburst candy and coloring pictures of animals and flowers with glitter gel pens. She gave her drawings as gifts to her friends and family, proclaiming her love for them in bubbly handwriting decorated with hearts.

The North Carolina native underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor when she was about 12, leaving her with the mental capacity of a child. She even resembled a young girl, though she was 29.

Because of her vulnerability, Hatchett’s loved ones were stunned when she was moved from the state’s health care system for people with disabilities and into the Clayton County Jail last year. She was arrested on charges stemming from a fight she allegedly had with a caregiver in her home. While behind bars, Hatchett suffered from an infection that triggered a toxic response throughout her body. She was taken to a hospital and succumbed to her illness a few days later.

Hatchett was among 22 people who died last year in the custody of Georgia’s five largest jails or after the jails sent them to hospitals, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Clayton and Gwinnett county jails experienced the highest death tolls at five and eight respectively, their largest annual totals in more than a decade. Seven people who were held in the DeKalb County Jail have died this year, its highest yearly total since 2009.

These men and women, many of whom were particularly at risk because of mental illness, passed away from a variety of causes, including diseases, drug overdoses and suicide. But their deaths all shared something in common: They happened amid a trio of crises that are putting extraordinary pressure on Georgia’s jails — the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid abuse epidemic and lingering deficiencies in the state’s system for caring for people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities.

The AJC spent months documenting these deaths, using records obtained from the jails through Georgia’s Open Records Act, as well as death certificates and reports from county medical examiners and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

This work builds on an investigation the newspaper and Fresh Take Georgia did last summer when they reported thousands of jail workers and detainees across the state had been infected with COVID-19, dozens had been hospitalized and at least 33 had died with the disease. It also expands reporting the AJC, Channel 2 Action News and the Georgia News Lab did in 2018, when they documented more than 500 detainee deaths over the past decade in the state’s jails and found gaps that essentially turned some into warehouses for the mentally ill with fatal consequences.

About this investigation

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent months documenting deaths in the Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett county jails, using records obtained from them through Georgia’s Open Records Act, as well as death certificates and reports from county medical examiners and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. This work builds on an investigation the newspaper and Fresh Take Georgia did last summer when they reported thousands of jail workers and detainees across the state had been infected with COVID-19, dozens had been hospitalized and at least 33 had died with the disease. It also expands reporting the AJC, Channel 2 Action News and the Georgia News Lab did in 2018, when they documented more than 500 detainee deaths over the past decade in the state’s jails and found gaps that essentially turned some into warehouses for the mentally ill with fatal consequences.

Georgia’s 142 jails mostly hold people who are awaiting trials and haven’t been convicted of the crimes that led to their detention, like Hatchett.

Hatchett’s medical records show she struggled with numerous illnesses: schizophrenia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, osteoporosis and hypothyroidism. She had a history of seizures and also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that caused her to experience “horrifying memories, reoccurring fears and feelings of helplessness.”

Her loved ones say the system failed her.

“She shouldn’t have been locked up in a jail with other prisoners. She has got to have somebody look after her,” said her father, Eddie Hatchett of Maggie Valley, North Carolina. “It just wasn’t right.”

Credit: Jeremy Redmon/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Jeremy Redmon/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘I hold them responsible for it’

Robert Lee Miller had tested positive for COVID-19 and had suffered from a dry cough and weakness for five days before authorities brought him from the Gwinnett County Jail’s infirmary to Northside Hospital Gwinnett in August of last year.

Mentally disabled since birth, the 66-year-old Lithonia man was awaiting trial on a charge of aggravated sexual battery. He died at the hospital about a month after arriving there from the jail. His death certificate lists “pneumonia due to COVID-19″ among the causes of his death, while noting that he had a history of heart disease and congestive heart failure.

Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council reported to the U.S. Justice Department that Miller died in law enforcement custody, noting he was held in Gwinnett’s jail. Asked about Miller, the Gwinnett Sheriff’s Office referred to a judge’s order that granted Miller’s release on bond while he was hooked up to a ventilator in the hospital because of kidney failure, 15 days before his death.

Miller’s sister, Anita Cathey, who had looked after him for decades, said Miller planned to plead not guilty to the crime he was charged with last year. She suspects her late brother contracted COVID-19 during the more than six months he was held in the jail. She added that Miller told her the jail didn’t give him the medication he needed for his heart problems.

“He was very sick. I hold them responsible for it,” Cathey, a retired postal worker, said of the jail’s workers. “I couldn’t get any information from them.”

ExploreAJC investigation: The battle against COVID-19 in Georgia’s jails

Seven other people who were held in the Gwinnett jail died last year, including a pair of cellmates who overdosed inside the lockup on fentanyl and Xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer. Suspected drug material — a small bag of white powder — was reportedly found in their cell, according to Gwinnett County Medical Examiner records. In December, a Georgia grand jury indicted two other jail detainees on drug distribution and murder charges in connection with the two overdose deaths.

A Gwinnett detainee hanged himself in his cell in February of 2021, five months after another man died the same way. Two other Gwinnett detainees have hanged themselves in their cells so far this year. The Gwinnett Sheriff’s Office said one of them was not in its custody when he died, pointing out that he was granted bond on the same day he hanged himself and was taken to a local hospital, where he passed away two days later. Between 2019 and 2020, two men killed themselves by jumping from the jail’s second floor.

The Gwinnett Sheriff’s Office declined to answer questions about Miller’s illness and medical treatment, citing a federal regulation that protects confidential health information. But it said everyone undergoes a mental health screening when booked into the jail, adding that it has a mental health task force consisting of licensed clinicians as well as deputies trained and certified for crisis interventions. The jail also offers programs for helping people with drug and alcohol addictions, including a Drug Relapse Program and Alcoholics Anonymous.

“The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office prioritizes the safety and security of inmates and employees,” the office said.

Of the seven DeKalb County Jail detainees who have died so far this year, one of them hanged himself in his cell and two others appear to have died by suicide as well, though DeKalb Sheriff’s Office records indicate their cases remain under investigation. The DeKalb and Fulton sheriff’s offices did not respond to questions emailed to them.

At least five people have hanged themselves inside the Cobb County Jail since 2019. Two of the three deaths that have happened at the jail this year remain under investigation, including a woman who was undergoing a mental health evaluation and another who was receiving treatment in a suicide prevention program. The jail, according to the Cobb Sheriff’s Office, offers mental health care around the clock.

“Jails cannot and should not be mental health institutions,” the office said, adding that Sheriff Craig Owens “has repeatedly called for substantive investment in mental health care outside the walls of a detention center.”

Nearly half of all people held in jails across the nation have a mental disorder, according to a report the Justice Department published in 2017. In Georgia, people with mental illnesses are represented in county jails at twice the rate of the general population and stay more than twice as long behind bars on average compared to those without mental illnesses, Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council said in a study released in June.

Georgia’s jails are doing the best they can in caring for such vulnerable people as they fight the spread of COVID-19 and struggle with staffing shortages, said J. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. Norris added that jails “have become the de facto mental health institutions.”

“There are not adequate clinical beds in our state where these individuals can receive the appropriate treatment,” he said. “I think we are making strides toward that. But those places don’t exist like maybe they used to.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

‘Please get me out of here’

Carin Hatchett had a tragic life before she ended up behind bars. When she was a child, according to relatives, she underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. Part of her pituitary gland had to be removed along with the tumor, stunting her physical and mental growth. She was close to her mother, a hairdresser from Blairsville who battled addiction to painkillers before she died in a car wreck in 2018, according to her family.

Hatchett was placed in the care of state-licensed homes for people with mental disabilities. For about a decade, she lived in an Atlanta-area home operated by Wendy Rose. Hatchett needed help with simple hygiene, Rose said, even brushing her teeth. Hatchett became increasingly more aggressive and violent, according to Rose, partly because of her grief over the death of her mother.

Rose said she asked state officials to place Hatchett in inpatient psychiatric care so that she could be reevaluated and have her medication adjusted, if necessary. Rose added that she would have taken Hatchett back after such treatment. Instead, Rose said, the state moved Hatchett to other homes in its system, including one in Morrow.

In February and March of last year, Clayton County police were dispatched twice to that Morrow home, police records show. Her caregivers accused her of punching them and spitting on them. Both times, she was taken to a hospital for a mental evaluation. Police were sent to a different address nearby in the same Morrow neighborhood on March 31 of last year, when Hatchett was accused of kicking one of the same caretakers. After the police arrived, Hatchett began to slap her own face and bang her head against a couch. When a Clayton police officer sought to stop her from harming herself, Hatchett kicked him, a police report says.

Credit: Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy

After police took her into custody, she continued to bang her head in the police car, causing her face to swell, so an officer took her to Southern Regional Medical Center in Riverdale. At the hospital the next day, Hatchett struck a mental health technician in the stomach, police records say. She was charged with simple battery and simple assault and taken to the Clayton jail.

On April 2, 2021, a Clayton Magistrate Court judge signed an order granting Hatchett bond. But she wasn’t bonded out and would remain in jail until just a few days before her death. The attorney who represented her in court did not respond to requests for comment.

Rose said she contacted the jail and state officials, seeking to get Hatchett released. Meanwhile, Hatchett told her during a phone call that a detainee had beaten her, Rose said.

“The last call I got from her was very emotional. She called me, hysterically,” Rose said. “She said, ‘Please get me out of here. I can’t take it anymore.’”

GBI, hospital, Clayton Sheriff’s Office and death investigation records detail what happened in the days leading to her death: On June 24, Hatchett was admitted to the jail’s infirmary because of an eye infection, nausea and vomiting. A nurse in the jail reported that Hatchett was septic. On June 27, she was brought by ambulance to a hospital, suffering from confusion, dehydration and a suspected urinary tract infection.

“She shouldn't have been locked up in a jail with other prisoners. She has got to have somebody look after her. It just wasn't right."

- Eddie Hatchett, father of Carin Hatchett

At the hospital, she was found to possibly be suffering from appendicitis. She was also experiencing low blood pressure, abnormally low body temperature and breathing trouble, so she was placed in intensive care. Still under guard by Clayton sheriff’s deputies, her legs were shackled to her hospital bed.

Hatchett was given medication and placed on a ventilator before she died two days after arriving at the hospital. Her death certificate lists severe septic shock among the causes. A Clayton Medical Examiner’s Office report says Hatchett “should have been housed in a mental facility and not with adults when she was still a child with a 12-year-old mind at 29.”

Experts agreed with that conclusion.

“We have caregivers of children and adults who frequently resort to law enforcement when people have behavioral health crises. It’s frightening,” said Devon Orland, the legal director for the Georgia Advocacy Office, which looks out for people with disabilities. “Law enforcement is not equipped to deal with it. And it criminalizes the illness.”

The Clayton Sheriff’s Office declined to comment for this article. On Wednesday, Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill was found guilty in federal court on six charges that he violated the civil rights of jail detainees by strapping them into restraint chairs as punishment. Hill, who pleaded not guilty, was suspended from his job last year, pending the outcome of the federal charges.

Four months ago, an independent reviewer appointed by a federal court reported that more than a quarter of the state’s crisis beds were unavailable in April when Hatchett was first brought to the jail, partly because of staffing shortages in Georgia’s system for caring for people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities. Some had been unavailable for months. The reviewer added she was looking into Hatchett’s death, referring to her in her report only by her initials.

“CH could not be released from jail because there were no available community residential alternatives, including crisis beds,” her report says. “Although the details are not yet fully known, her incarceration continued until she was hospitalized with sepsis. She died shortly thereafter.”

Georgia’s Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Department declined to comment on Hatchett’s case, citing state and federal privacy laws. But the agency said the pandemic, nursing shortages and increasing demand are among the factors that have caused the state’s shortage of available crisis beds. The department underscored that it funds programs in which clinicians are paired with police responding to calls involving mental health crises. Such “co-responders” seek to deescalate those situations and help people get outpatient care. The agency added Georgia is expanding the capacity of its crisis response system.

“Crisis needs have exploded in the pandemic,” the agency said. “With the rollout of the national 9-8-8 suicide and crisis lifeline, awareness and demand for crisis support has continued to grow and is projected to double in the first year.”

Four other Clayton jail detainees died last year. All of them had disabilities. In February of 2021, for example, a man who had been given methadone in the jail for opioid dependency hanged himself in his cell. Because he had told jail officials that he may have been exposed to COVID-19, he was placed in wing of the jail used for isolation. Three months later, another man hanged himself in his cell. He suffered from bipolar disorder and PTSD and was “detoxing from meth,” according to a Clayton death investigation report.

“We have caregivers of children and adults who frequently resort to law enforcement when people have behavioral health crises. It's frightening."

- Devon Orland, legal director for the Georgia Advocacy Office

In November, a diabetic man who had survived kidney failure and cancer and who had one of his legs amputated died in the jail after suffering from a urinary tract infection and heart disease, according to a Clayton death investigation report. That report says it does not appear he was given dialysis while at the jail. A month later, a schizophrenic detainee with a history of heart problems died in the jail because of complications from pneumonia. So far this year, three men have died in the custody of Clayton’s jail, including one man who was allegedly killed by his cellmate.

Meanwhile, Hatchett’s family is still grieving her death. Her father said he placed some of her ashes near his parents’ graves in Murphy, North Carolina.

“Me and her always got along. She is my baby,” he said. “I put her ashes down in the ground next to my mother and father because they loved her and she loved them.”

AJC data specialist Jennifer Peebles also contributed to this report.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo


About this investigation

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent months documenting deaths in the Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett county jails, using records obtained from them through Georgia’s Open Records Act, as well as death certificates and reports from county medical examiners and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

This work builds on an investigation the newspaper and Fresh Take Georgia did last summer when they reported thousands of jail workers and detainees across the state had been infected with COVID-19, dozens had been hospitalized and at least 33 had died with the disease.

It also expands reporting the AJC, Channel 2 Action News and the Georgia News Lab did in 2018, when they documented more than 500 detainee deaths over the past decade in the state’s jails and found gaps that essentially turned some into warehouses for the mentally ill with fatal consequences.