April 17, 2024

The deaths of two inmates at the Chatham County Detention Center within the past week were both drug overdoses, according to multiple Chatham County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) officials who spoke at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Sheriff John Wilcher held the press conference to address concerns and the “safety and security” of the facility itself.

On Sept. 15, a CCSO Unit Officer discovered detainee Lloyd James unresponsive in his cell at 5:15 a.m. James was transported to Memorial Health University Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Four days later, on Sept. 19, a sheriff’s officer discovered detainee Marco Danton Ochoa unresponsive in his cell at 4:13 p.m. Ochoa also was transported to Memorial Health University Medical Center, where he was later pronounced dead.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) Region 5 is leading the inquiry to verify the cause of both deaths.

According to CCSO records17 inmates have died at the jail since 2016. Thirteen of those deaths occurred between 2016-2022. Investigations revealed that eight of those deaths were by suicide, three by disease, one by natural causes and one by overdose.

Four deaths have occurred this year. The investigations of the death of Gregory Woods, who died on March 5, and the death of Maurice Small, who died on May 5, are pending review by the Chatham County District Attorney’s office.

More: Defendants argue that Lee Michael Creely ’caused his own demise’ by overdosing on drugs in jail

More: Second inmate in week’s time dies at Chatham County Detention Center

More: Georgia Bureau of Investigation looking into death of Chatham County Detention Center inmate

‘It’s very easy to sneak it in, sneak it out’

As a response to James and Ochoa’s deaths, security measures at the Chatham County Jail have been strengthened, CCSO Major Lamiles Hill said.

Those measures included strip-searching and scanning 135 inmates who were located in two different wings and searching their cells for drugs, said Hill. Staff then relocated the inmates to another wing. In total, the process took four hours.

Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team (CNT) is assisting CCSO with the investigations, CNT Director Mike Sarhatt said at the press conference. Although it will take months to receive the toxicology screenings, Sarhatt said it’s “probably a safe bet that [the two inmate deaths] were opioid-related deaths.” The two deaths mark the 65th and 66th overdoses in the county this year, said Sarhatt.

“It’s very difficult to locate this because of the size,” said Sarhatt. “And it’s very easy to sneak it in, sneak it out.”

The inmates and cells are “clean now,” added Sarhatt, though he did not confirm whether the CNT found drugs during its search.

CCSO Chief Deputy Gary Taylor said the overdoses are “not connected.” Taylor said the CCSO Criminal Investigation Division (CID) is conducting an internal investigation into the two deaths.

“We are here also to make a promise today that the evidence that’s led through this investigation, where it leads us, we will act and charge accordingly within the limits of the law to make sure that we send a strong message,” said Taylor.

Jail addresses drug issue: ‘We’re making unprecedented decisions and taking unprecedented action’

The recent drug-related deaths come after multiple jail contractors and employees were arrested and charged with drug-related offenses earlier this year. In February, a nurse practitioner was arrested after being caught stealing medication from an inmate. Also in February, a correctional officer smuggled drugs into the jail using a Styrofoam cup filled with ice. In May, a jail contract worker for Oasis, the private company that manages the detention center’s commissary, was paid $1,500 to bring in sheets of paper laced with drugs.

In May, Wilcher requested the Chatham County Commission purchase a $142,500 Tek84 whole-body security scanning system for the detention center. The jail uses one whole-body security scanning system located in Receiving and Discharge, which is used for detecting contraband on incoming detainees, but it “cannot provide adequate coverage” due to the “influx of detainees and the requirements to search all individuals coming into the detention center,” Wilcher detailed in the May 12 emergency procurement. The new scanning system, located in Unit 5 in the jail, is not certified yet, so it hasn’t been used, Taylor explained.

In September 2021, jail staff intercepted letters and envelopes addressed to inmates that were laced with fentanyl, causing them to change policy, switching to an electronic mail system, a policy that is still in place, Taylor confirmed.

To address the drug issue within the jail, Taylor said at the press conference that CCSO is holding strategic planning meetings. “We’re doing unprecedented things, we’re making unprecedented decisions and taking unprecedented action to protect everyone within the walls of the Chatham County Sheriff’s Detention Center.”

Drew Favakeh is the public safety and courts reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at AFavakeh@savannahnow.com.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Two Chatham County jail deaths attributed to drug overdoses by Sheriff

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