The Chatham County jail changed its rules on attorneys visiting clients who are locked up after the public defender’s office cried foul that they couldn’t get reasonable access to their indigent clients.

Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher modified the jail’s policies on May 2, loosening rules on access during the week and allowing public defenders to come on weekends if their jailed clients have a trial or hearing coming soon, according to Chief Deputy Gary Taylor.

Rules from Sheriff Wilcher set three years ago had required 48 hours notice of an attorney visit and a court order from a judge if they wanted to come on a weekend. The Eastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender’s office filed a motion in March alleging the rules violated the rights of people who had public defenders representing them.

Todd Martin and Robert Attridge with the public defender’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

This shift comes as Sheriff Wilcher and his administration of the Chatham County Detention Center are dropping restrictions that were put in place during Covid and lingered well past the disease’s severe threat. The Current reported last week that the jail now accepts people accused of misdemeanors, low-level crimes like shoplifting and marijuana possession, which is something it wasn’t doing during the pandemic to avoid crowding.

It also comes after an April report in The Current found how jails down Georgia’s coast, including Chatham County, keep up Covid-era visitation restrictions between detainees and loved ones, while collecting revenues by charging fees for phone calls, video chats and text messages from the jail. Sheriffs said the fees are necessary to pay for programs for jailed people. 

Chatham County Detention Center Credit: Chatham County Sheriff's Office website

People who are in jail have been charged with a crime but not convicted. They are awaiting trial or hearings in their cases. They are kept in jail if a judge considers them a threat to public safety, to ensure they return to court, or they are unable to afford their bail.

On March 3, the Chatham County public defender’s office filed a motion on behalf of 41 clients. The agency alleged that despite the reopening of the criminal justice system post-Covid, “there has been no modification of the restrictions / limitations of in jail visitation which were imposed during the pandemic at CCDC,” the motion said. 

The continued Covid restrictions violated Chatham County defendants’ right to access an attorney, something enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Georgia’s Constitution, according to the motion.

One of their complaints was the forced use of JailATM, the service Chatham County detainees use to access deposited funds and also have video calls with loved ones and attorneys. 

The virtual visits with indigent clients were ineffective, the public defender’s office alleged, because of faulty equipment, a lack of equipment, no confidentiality for detainees and an inability to show exhibits and other court documents. 

Assistant Chatham County Attorney Andre Pretorius acknowledged there have been reported issues with the JailATM video feeds not connecting. The videos work at the jail but sometimes don’t work for users outside the jail, he said.

“We have to work with the sheriff’s office to get one of our computer specialist people to go out and check each one of those things,” Pretorius said. “And that will take a while.”

Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Email him at Prior to joining The Current,...