Ful­ton jail ac­cused of ‘bar­baric’ con­di­tions

Of­fi­cials urge change af­ter re­view­ing civil rights lawyer’s let­ter.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Bill Rankin brankin@ajc.com

Men­tally ill women are be­ing de­tained in iso­la­tion for weeks at a time at a south Ful­ton County jail in­side filthy cells that reek of fe­ces, a civil rights at­tor­ney has told county of­fi­cials in a let­ter that calls for change.

Many of the­women, held in chaotic and un­san­i­tary con­di­tions, are not re­ceiv­ing proper med­i­cal treat­ment and are de­te­ri­o­rat­ing into states of psy­chosis, Sarah

Ger­aghty, a lawyer with the South­ern Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights, wrote. Most of them face low-level mis­de­meanor charges and can­not post the $200 to $500 re­quired for bail.

The Aug. 17 let­ter was sent to Sher­iff Ted Jack­son, chief jailer Mark Adger and Ful­ton State Court Chief Judge Diane Bessen. It de­tails squalid con­di­tions at the South Ful­ton Mu­nic­i­pal Regional Jail and of­fers rec­om­men­da­tions “to avoid lit­i­ga­tion.”

“The con­di­tions de­scribed are un­ac­cept­able,” Bessen said Thurs­day in a state­ment to The At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti- tu­tion. “We are co­or­di­nat­ing ef­forts to ad­dress and ame­lio- rate this sit­u­a­tion.”

The re­sources re­quired to house and treat the men­tally ill are “woe­fully in­ad­e­quate, par­tic­u­larly for the in­di­gent,” the chief judge said. “How- ever, the State Court is com­mit­ted to rem­e­dy­ing this sit- ua­tion.”

In a state­ment, the Ful­ton County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice said, “Men­tal ill­ness is of great con- cern to us, as there are in­creas- ing num­bers of in­mates who re­quire care be­yond the ca­pac- ity of the ( jail).”

“Un­for­tu­nately, our abil­i­ties to pro­vide this crit­i­cal care are limited by hu­man re­sources and train­ing avail­able for staff,” the state­ment said. Com­pound­ing the prob­lem is that many new in­mates were re­ceiv­ing no med­i­cal care be­fore they were ar­rested, and then they refuse to take med­i­ca­tion while in cus­tody.

The sher­iff ’s of­fice will ask the court sys­tem to or­der that med­i­ca­tion be ad­min­is­tered to these in­mates for their ben- efit and so they can con­trib­ute to their de­fense, the state- ment said.

The jail, lo­cated in Union City, houses pre­trial de­tain- ees and can hold up to 325 in­mates, about 40 of whom are women. It has three wings for men­tally ill women, and many re­side in a sin­gle cell be­cause they are deemed too ill to share space with an­other per­son, the South­ern Cen­ter let­ter said.

In an in­ter­view, Ger­aghty said she com­piled the in­for- ma­tion dur­ing vis­its to the jail this year. And she com- pared walk­ing through the men­tal health ar­eas to hav­ing a night­mare.

“You see caged peo­ple scream­ing in­co­her­ently with the over­whelm­ing smell of fe­ces in the air,” she said. “It’s bar­baric. We can’t per­mit these kinds of con­di­tions to be­come nor­mal­ized in our crim­i­nal le­gal cul­ture. We have to be bet­ter than this.”

The pro­longed iso­la­tion of the women is more re­stric­tive than the most ex­treme soli­tary con­fine­ment in the state prison sys­tem, Ger­aghty said. “And these are women who are charged with the pet­ti­est of of­fenses.”

In her let­ter, Ger­aghty ac­knowl­edged that many of the women are “un­ques­tion­ably dif­fi­cult to man­age in a jail set­ting,” and she ex­pressed sym­pa­thy for jail- ers who have to try to man­age such a sit­u­a­tion. But con­fin­ing the women in their cells around the clock for weeks at a time, and re­mov­ing them only when they must ap­pear in court, vi­o­lates the Con­sti- tu­tion, she said.

One woman was held from May 8 to Aug. 9 on a pub- lic in­de­cency charge — for be­ing par­tially un­clothed at a MARTA bus stop — be­cause she couldn’t post a $500 bond. “We ob­served her to be ag­i­tated, in­co­her­ent and filthy,” the let­ter said, cit­ing con­cerns of fel­low in­mates that the woman rarely ven­tured out of her cell and had not bathed in months.

Af­ter a South­ern Cen­ter lawyer dis­cov­ered the woman had not gone to court or been ap­pointed a lawyer dur­ing her three months of con­fine­ment, her case was dis­missed two days later.

An­other woman in­mate was ob­served in her cell with food smeared on her bed. Her toi­let bowl was filled with waste, and the stench of vomit, urine and fe­ces was over­whelm­ing, the let­ter said.

One woman held in a so-called “sui­cide cell” was seen stand­ing com­pletely naked be­hind her fe­ces-cov­ered win­dow. She mouthed un­in­tel­li­gi­ble words and in­ter- mit­tently cried and sang, the let­ter said.

It also noted that a 44-year- old schiz­o­phrenic woman had died at the jail in April 2017 af­ter swal­low­ing a plas­tic spoon and the bris­tle-half of a plas­tic tooth­brush.

Ke­sha Brown­lee, who had suf­fered from se­vere men­tal ill­ness for more than 25 years, was be­ing held on a felony pro­ba­tion war­rant. At the time of her death, she was liv­ing in squalor in an iso­la­tion cell, the South­ern Cen­ter let­ter said.

Brown­lee’s mother, Wil­lie Smith Myrick, said sys­temwide changes must be made.

“These peo­ple can’t help it that they’re sick,” she said. “We as a peo­ple have got to do some­thing about this. It won’t bring Ke­sha back, but if it will stop one more fam­ily from be­ing hurt or one more in­mate from dy­ing, it’s worth it.”

Many of these in­mates don’t need to be in jail, Myrick said. “Their sick­ness needs to be treated.”

The let­ter asks the court sys­tem to change its bail pol­icy and en­sure that in­quiries are made promptly about a de­tainee’s abil­ity to pay pre-set bond amounts. It asks the county to en­sure that peo­ple who look like they may be in­com­pe­tent to stand trial are eval­u­ated by men­tal health of­fi­cials within seven days of book­ing. And the county should re­quire pros­e­cu­tors to ar­tic­u­late a com­pelling rea­son why some­one fac­ing a non­vi­o­lent mis­de­meanor charge should be held longer than 30 days, the let­ter said.

As for the sher­iff ’s depart­ment, it should hire a men­tal health ex­pert to au­dit the care of jail de­tainees, en­sure men­tal health care providers main­tain ad­e­quate staffing lev­els, and en­sure men­tally ill women are housed in san­i­tary con­di­tions and are al­lowed time out­side their cells, the let­ter said.

Ful­ton County Com­mis­sion Chair­man Robb Pitts said he found the let­ter’s al­le­ga­tions to be “sim­ply ap­palling” and said he will be talk­ing to the sher­iff to ad­dress the con­cerns.

“At a min­i­mum, the rec­om­men­da­tions sug­gested by the South­ern Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights should be im­ple­mented im­me­di­ately,” Pitts said. The let­ter high­lights the need to end cash bail for in­di­gent de­fen­dants and to find ad­di­tional re­sources for men­tal health treat­ment, he said.

“The pub­lic is not served and the com­mu­nity is not pro­tected,” Ger­aghty wrote, “by ware­hous­ing peo­ple with se­ri­ous men­tal ill­ness in iso­lated con­fine­ment for long pe­ri­ods and then re­leas­ing them in a de­com­pen­sated state, par­tic­u­larly when their of­fenses are non­vi­o­lent mis­de­meanors.”

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