Guess which Chatham County agency just started a new open-door policy? Answer- The Chatham County Jail!
This may sound like the punchline to a joke, but Sheriff John Wilcher, who won his job in a run-off election three months ago, was just making good on a promise he made to voters.
The 40-year law enforcement veteran retired as jail administrator two years ago with the rank of Colonel and one of the first changes he made as Sheriff was to order the doors to the jail lobby unlocked 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I promised voters I would never forget that I was working for them and they were my bosses, so for us, there's no such thing as normal business hours.” Wilcher said. “When a loved one has been arrested, we have family members coming to the jail all hours of the night. If you lock families out of our lobby after dark, what about the mother with small children who might need access to a bathroom or snack machine? We were making people wait out on the sidewalk or sleep in their cars and the front of our building was starting to look like a homeless shelter. In my humble opinion, that's no way to operate.”
Speaking of humility, Sheriff Wilcher points to a wall plaque his wife gave him several years ago–
its words a reminder of how he hopes to run his jail: “Always be kind and stay humble”.
Sheriff Wilcher won his post in a special election called following the death of the previous sheriff, Al St. Lawrence and will face former jail administrator, MacArthur Holmes, in the November general election.
Of the five people who ran for the office following the death of Sheriff Al St. Lawrence, Wilcher was the only candidate to reach out to Chatham County’s Hispanic communities, and was a faithful attendee at monthly breakfasts sponsored by the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as well as Hispanic community and church events.
“We have people from 39 different countries living in Chatham County today and my goal has always been to see that all of them are treated equally and fairly when they have an interaction with the Chatham County jail,” Wilcher said. “We try to make it as easy as possible for family members to stay in touch with a prisoner while he’s incarcerated in our jail. If they come for a personal visit, we do require an ID but it doesn’t have to be a drivers license since not everyone has that available to them.”
Wilcher says he works hard to be a faithful steward of the taxpayer’s money and running a jail can be a very expensive operation. That’s one reason Wilcher releases some non-violent misdemeanor offenders soon after they are arrested.
“It costs us $70 a day to feed, clothe and house one inmate,” he said. “You multiply that by an average of 1700 inmates and the daily operating costs add up really fast. We have a very thorough process for identifying the people we arrest. Once we’re satisfied they are who they say they are, if they’ve been booked on a minor charge, we hold them four hours and give them a subpoena to appear in court. If you’re dealing with a homeless person or a transient, sometimes it’s much cheaper to buy them a bus ticket back to their home city than to lock them up here for 90 days at $70 a day.”
Wilcher understands the special challenges presented by the language barrier for inmate families who speak little or no English.
“Our goal is to make sure that all inmates are treated the same, regardless of whether they speak English or any other language,” he said. “We currently have 17 different personnel who are bilingual and we try to make sure they are spread over the different shifts so someone is always on duty who can help our staff with translations.”
Another family-friendly innovation you’ll find at the Chatham County jail today is the video-visitation system that became operational last month.
“For just $8, we’ll set up a 20-minute video teleconference between an inmate and a family member,” Wilcher said. “This access is available from a home computer, laptop, tablet or smart phone. All the visiting party needs is an internet connection, a system that runs on either Microsoft Windows 8.1 or greater or Android 4.0.3 or greater and a webcam or front facing camera and headset. Video-visitation is monitored by staff. Inappropriate behavior including nudity, foul language, and illegal/criminal activity will not be tolerated and the visitation will be shut down if this is observed. The same rules as an onsite visit apply.”
Wilcher said a typical inmate would normally spend no more than a few months in jail but, in some complicated legal cases, could spend up to three years there. In those cases, his goal becomes, not just incarceration but also rehabilitation.
“We have developed 12 different programs to benefit inmates who stay here for extended periods of time,” Wilcher said. “Along with educational programs like computer literacy and G.E.D. studies, we have two other programs that are so popular there is a waiting list to participate in them. “Operation New Hope” is a partnership between the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office and the Greater Savannah Humane Society to give unadoptable dogs in our community a second chance and help rehabilitate inmates in the Chatham County jail. Dogs from the Humane Society live in the cell with an inmate and learn obedience skills before being adopted by families on the outside.”
The other program offers inmates the opportunity to live in a special wing of the prison that promotes a non-denominational Christian environment.
“Our Christian wing is very popular and we have a great group of outside volunteers who come into the prison to staff it,” Wilcher said.
40-plus years in the jail system has taught Sheriff John Wilcher a few things about human behavior.
“In my experience, we deal with three types of individuals,” he said. “First, you’ve got people whose guilt or innocence has yet to be determined in a court of law; second, you’ve got the people who have made a mistake, been convicted of committing a crime, and are paying for it; and third you’ve got people who, frankly, aren’t worth the bullet it would take to shoot them.”
But Wilcher insists that every single inmate, regardless of which category he might place them, be treated fairly and justly, according to the rule of law.
“We had a situation this spring where I had to fire a jailer, a 17-year veteran who had a good record of service,” Wilcher said. “She lost her temper after an inmate became disruptive and spit in her face while restrained. She sprayed him in the face with pepper spray and that was assault. That was an illegal act and I will not tolerate any illegal behavior by our officers. We have 685 cameras in this facility, in every nook and cranny, except for bathrooms. They are there to protect our staff but also to keep us accountable for our actions.”