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Change in Fulton County, GA: Indigent Defense, HIV, and Community Organizing

The Fulton County Jail in Atlanta is the largest jail in Georgia, with approximately 3,000 prisoners held there for months and sometimes years waiting for their cases to be resolved or to be transferred to a state prison. In early 1999, the medical care for people who are HIV+ was virtually non-existent; people waited approximately one year before being indicted or talking with an attorney; the roof leaked chronically, causing water to run down the walls of the medical unit and most other units; and it was crowded with over 4,000 prisoners, approximately 1/3 of whom slept in dayrooms, in hallways, or on the floor. In the course of one year, under the pressure of two major lawsuits and a grassroots community organizing effort, the county has been forced, reluctantly, to change.

Indigent Defense
In 1994 a prisoner in the jail named Sam Stinson filed a pro se case in federal court (U.S. District Court Northern District of Georgia) against the Fulton County Commission because he had been held in the jail for four months without speaking to an attorney or investigator about his case. He had neither been indicted nor had a bond reduction during this time. Attorneys Bob Bensing and Robert Toone of the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and a private attorney, Bruce Maloy, represented Mr. Stinson in what became a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all people charged with non-homicide felonies in the Fulton County Jail. Fulton County had routinely been under-funding the indigent defense system in the county, making caseloads for public defenders (PD) outrageously large.

In June 1999, Stinson v. Fulton County (Civil Action No. 1-94-CV-240-GET) settled under a consent order. Fulton County consented to adequately fund the indigent defense system and agreed that indigent people coming into the jail had to be interviewed by the PD's office within the first week. A total of $175,000 was awarded for damages to the plaintiff class representative, Sam Stinson, and plaintiffs' attorneys' fees and costs.

On the first anniversary of this settlement, there have been some improvements in the county indigent defense system, but improvements are far from adequate to address the problems raised in the lawsuit. Fulton County, in its most recent status report on May 24, 2000, for the Stinson case, reports that caseloads for the public defenders have dropped dramatically and the number of people not indicted within 60, 90, and 120 days has decreased significantly. However, the number of people in the jail who have "fallen through the cracks" remains significant. For example, a prisoner named "Jerry" was arrested in June 1999 for allegedly stealing a chair from a vacant lot. Originally a misdemeanor, his charge was upgraded to a felony, the file was lost in the transition, and Jerry was not put on a court calendar for either State Court (where misdemeanors are heard) or Superior Court (where felonies are heard). He sat in jail for 11 months until outside advocates from SCHR called State Court and the PD's office repeatedly. He is currently out on a signature bond, but he has not yet been to court.

One of the enduring problems in Fulton County and throughout Georgia is that there is no state law limiting how long someone can sit in jail before being indicted. Fulton County has expanded their Pre-Trial Release Program and has instituted "All Purpose Hearings" which get most felony cases in front of a judge for bond reductions, decisions to dead-docket a case, or plea offers within three weeks of arrest. However, if you are poor and not guilty you can still sit for months waiting to be indicted before you can go to trial. Georgia's speedy trial law does not kick in until after a defendant is indicted.

Georgians for Equal Justice
On another front, in January 1999, Ann Colloton and Katharine Huffman of the Southern Center for Human Rights called a meeting to initiate a community organization, Georgians for Equal Justice, to stand up on behalf of people caught up in the prisons and courts of Georgia. Within the first year, the group, made up of approximately 125 members from all walks of life from around the state of Georgia, decided to focus its energy on the Fulton County courts and jails as its first project. Since then, they have put pressure on the County Commission to make changes in the jail and court system, met with the head of the Public Defender's Office, the District Attorney, the Superior Court administrator, the Chief Judge and others. They have remained diligent in their efforts to educate people in the community and bring about change in the Fulton County justice system. However, one of their biggest challenges has come in recent months in response to another lawsuit brought against the County.

Lack of Treatment for HIV
In November 1998, attorney Tamara Serwer, also of the Southern Center for Human Rights, received a letter from an HIV+ prisoner at the Fulton County Jail, Ruben Foster. In his letter, and many more which followed, he described horrendous living conditions and a doctor who would read to people from the Bible and tell them they were sinners instead of giving them life-saving medications. In April 1999, Serwer, along with other SCHR attorneys and private attorney, Chip Rowan, filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of all HIV+ prisoners in the Fulton County Jail, Foster et al v. Fulton Counter et al (Civil Action No. 1-99-900-MHS). Within a week, on April 16, 1999, the U.S. District Judge, Hon. Marvin H. Shoob, had signed a temporary consent order which said, among other things, that the County needed to hire an HIV specialist, that people on HIV medications be continued on their medications upon intake to the jail, and that accurate medical charts should be kept. While the order was good, the County and its private medical contractor, Correctional Healthcare Solutions (CHS), were not very quick to bring about the ordered changes. Throughout the summer and fall of 1999 investigators and attorneys from the Southern Center prepared to bring the County and CHS into court.

In the fall of 1999, there were also settlement negotiations between the parties. Finally, in January 2000, the County and CHS signed onto an agreement which included all of the previous requirements from the April 16, 1999, order as well as additional requirements, such as 4 to 7 days of medications for people upon release from the jail, discharge planning to help people set up medical appointments and find other necessary social services upon release, education about living with HIV/AIDS, and a medical monitor who makes regular reports to the judge on the quality of care provided at the jail.

As part of the settlement, $200,000 was awarded as attorneys' fees and costs. No damages were sought. All of the money paid to SCHR in the Foster case and in the Stinson case will go towards future litigation SCHR will bring on behalf of prisoners. None of this money is given individually to SCHR attorneys. All employees of SCHR, including the director of the Center, make approximately the same salary, between $23,000 and $27,000 per year.

The court-appointed monitor for the Foster case, Dr. Robert Greifinger, issued his first report in February 2000. In it, he made it clear that the County and the healthcare providers had a long way to go: dirty syringes had been found on the floor of the examining area, medical records for more than half of the prisoners requested by the monitor could not be found, and many extremely sick people continued to sleep on the floor. People continued to die because the medical care was inadequate. For example, a prisoner named "Willie" died shortly after being released from the jail in April 2000 after spending 11 months awaiting indictment, arrested for a minor drug possession. He was put on HIV medications at the jail which caused fatal liver failure because of co-infection with Hepatitis C. Although the medical care at the jail has improved, the fact that someone can be put on a fatal drug combination indicates that major problems still exist.

Systems needed to be developed from the ground up for medical care, medical records, dental care, and pharmaceutical services at the jail. Fulton County terminated their contract with Correctional Healthcare Solutions, and signed a contract with Comprehensive Medical Associates. A new chief jailer was also hired who is much more pro-active in addressing problems at the jail. As of Dr. Greifinger's June 1, 2000 order, significant improvements have been made to the health care at the jail. The inmates report to SCHR that care is currently being delivered in a more timely and professional manner to the majority of people who are HIV+.

A New Jail for Atlanta?
On April 11, 2000, Judge Shoob ordered that the County not only improve medical care for people who are HIV+, but that the County, in meeting the requirements for this lawsuit, must also address all medical care at the jail, physical conditions in all of the housing units, and overcrowding. The Judge included these requirements in his order because the care of people who are HIV+ cannot be solved in a vacuum. As a result of this order, the court's focus has shifted from the 100 or so prisoners who are HIV+ to the 40,000 people who go through the jail annually.

According to the April, 2000, order, the County had 30 days to present to the judge how they were going reduce overcrowding at the jail. The next day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the County was planning to build a $70 million, 1100 bed expansion to the jail.

Georgians for Equal Justice stepped up to the plate to oppose the expansion of the jail. At the next week's County Commission meeting there were approximately a dozen GEJ members who came to oppose the new jail plan. Many other members faxed in letters of protest. GEJ submitted a plan to the County Commission to spend money on fixing the court system, creating more alternative programs such as job training, mental health diversion programs, drug treatment, and developing transitional housing for people coming out of jail. The Commission listened to these ideas, the financial arguments, and the long-term vision of what a criminal justice system should look like. They scrapped the plan to build $70 million worth of jail beds and said that they would look at the causes of overcrowding. One of the commissioners read the summary of the GEJ plan into the minutes to articulate his plan. That was only the beginning of the fight.

On April 24, 2000, the Fulton County attorneys submitted a plan describing how the All Purpose Hearings and Pre-Trial release have already helped reduce the jail from 4,000 prisoners last year to just under 3,000 currently. The judge was not satisfied with the County's vague plans. On May 4th, he ordered the County to come up with a detailed plan within 60 days providing concrete deadlines about how and when they would get the jail population at or below capacity.

In the weeks since the judge's order, the County Manager and the Commissioners have come up with such hare-brained ideas as setting up tents in the vacant lot next to the jail or shipping people as far as two hours away to stay in rural county jails while they wait to be indicted. Georgians for Equal Justice has met with each of the Commissioners separately to counter these proposals. They have made their agenda clear: Fulton County does not need more jail beds and it does not need to warehouse people from here to Mars, it needs to fund and organize a more efficient County Court system. Fulton County needs to get people out of jail to reduce overcrowding!

On May 25th, Judge Shoob ordered Fulton County to provide him data about the efficiency of the county's court system, including a full explanation for why each individual who has been in the jail for more than 60 days hasn't been indicted. He also ordered that the County provide him with information about how many people are charged with misdemeanors, how many with felonies, how many with serious felonies, and how many with probation violations. Hopefully, this order in the Foster case will help solve some of the problems not solved by the Stinson consent order.

And the work continues...
Meanwhile, there are forces putting on pressure from all fronts. GEJ continues to agitate and educate public officials. They are working on drafting state legislation, based on legislation in other states, which requires that people be indicted within a reasonable amount of time after arrest. Currently, the law in Georgia states that a defendant must have a preliminary hearing within 48 hours. These hearings, however, tend to be mere rubber-stamps. Indictments in Georgia can take anywhere from two months to two years, depending on what county you are in.

The Stinson investigators continue to work toward getting people attorneys and getting cases resolved more quickly. The Stinson attorneys (now Marion Chartoff of SCHR and Bruce Maloy) are working on a strategy for the best legal action to caulk up the remaining cracks in the Fulton County court system.

The attorneys from the Foster case have recently joined a legal team representing prisoners in a class action lawsuit at the DeKalb County Jail, Adams v. Dorsey (98CV-11747-5). It is the second largest jail in the state and DeKalb County covers a large portion of the city of Atlanta. It is the neighboring county to Fulton County. The case, which deals with medical care and guard brutality, was filed in Superior Court of DeKalb County. Correctional Healthcare Solutions, the medical provider at Fulton County when Foster was originally filed, is now the medical provider at the DeKalb County Jail.

There is much more work to be done, and there will be even more work on the part of the advocates and activists to maintain the changes once they are in place. Progress is being made in Fulton County and we will not let up.

Lisa Zahren is an investigator at the Southern Center for Human Rights. SCHR represents prisoners in civil class action lawsuits and represents people facing the death penalty. Their work is limited to Georgia and Alabama.

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