MARIETTA — The sheriff in one of Atlanta's largest suburbs is trying out electronic bracelets that monitor inmates' vital signs, seeking to reduce deaths of people in custody.
Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens unveiled the monitors to local news outlets Tuesday. A Democrat, Owens won office in part by attacking the record of deaths at the jail under the watch of longtime Republican Sheriff Neil Warren. But there have been six more deaths at the jail since Owens took office, including three in the past month. Two of those were ruled suicides, while one is still under investigation.
"I'm not proud of that, but if you look around metro Atlanta, we're not different than anywhere else," Owens said. "I don't want one death. One death is too many."
The jail is the first nationwide to try a product made by Black Creek Integrated Systems of Alabama. At first, the jail will equip inmates that it deems to be at high risk with orange bracelets that monitor heart rates and alert jail staff to problems. If they are effective, the sheriff plans to expand the bracelets, which cost $100 apiece, to all inmates. The jail can hold up to 3,000 detainees.
Owens said the jail is understaffed and is trying to fill the gap with technology.
"On these at-risk inmates, if we can catch them at a moment of vulnerability and intercede, (staff can) take action to protect that inmate," Black Creek President Isaac Newton said.
The company makes other devices that monitor other vital signs and pinpoint the wearer's exact location.
Owens said the county was looking at using the bracelets before the recent deaths.
"Technology is a way for us to be successful in the future. It helps us save taxpayers money, be more efficient, provide the best possible health and mental health care that we can to citizens of Cobb County," Owens said.
The U.S. Department of Justice found 1,120 inmates died in jail in 2018, the most recent number available. That's the highest number since records began in 2000. Suicides are the leading cause of death.
Last fall, the sheriff's office launched a 24-hour mental health program for detainees. Owens says that's the first round-the-clock program in Georgia.