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Fulton County Jail under Federal Control

by David M. Reutter

For the second time since 1999, Georgia Federal District Judge Marvin H. Shoob has taken over supervision of the Fulton County Jail. Fulton County Jail Sheriff, Jacquelyn H. Barrett, told the court to go ahead, telling the court that appointing a receiver to oversee the jail, which holds over 3,000 prisoners, was a positive step.

The Court acted quickly after a lawsuit was filed in June 2004 on behalf of FCJ's prisoners by Stephen Bright, Director of Southern Center for Human Rights. That complaint made FCJ sound like a dungeon that the Sheriff had no control of.

A Modern Day Dungeon

Even before FCJ opened in the mid-1980's, it was evident the jail and its systems would deteriorate sooner rather than later. While it was under construction, it was determined FCH was smaller than what the county required to house its prisoners. Instead of spending more money to expand the jail, officials decided to pack 'em in." To make this happen the number of bunks were doubled even though the number of showers, toilets, and other utilities remained the same. A third bunk was recently added to each cell.

Dr. Robert B. Griefinger, a prison expert, visited FCJ on May 26 and May 27, 2004 with the goal to end two years of federal litigation focusing on FCJ's medical care. Those visits caused Griefinger to conclude FCJ was in a state of crisis.

In a May 31 letter to the Fulton County attorney's office, Griefinger detailed deplorable conditions. It was dank, full of sweaty bodies," he wrote of fifth floor cells. The air was thick with the scent of underwear, rank, each zone the same. Wet laundry on railings, raised voices, noisy, crowded. Inmates being abused about, milling randomly; a few banging on the zone doors. Mattresses on the floor in the day room. No duty officers in sight," he wrote.

He said the air conditioning had been broken for days," and water dripped from the ceiling into garbage pails. One area provided 12 showers for 326 prisoners. Another zone housed 59 prisoners -- 18 of whom slept on the floor -- with only two showers. Extremely tense. Each of my senses raising an alarm. Scary. Almost two decades of visiting inmate's housing units, it was the first time I declined to go in," the doctor wrote.

FCJ was designed to hold 1,332 prisoners. When Bright filed the June complaint, FCJ housed 3,299 prisoners. A full 500 inmates were housed in the facility without cells, sleeping on the floors in the dayroom." Griefinger's report said.

With over 1,300 work orders per month, the maintenance staff has no chance to keep up. The jail's basic systems are failing. Locks on many cells do not work. The physical plant, and the plumbing, electric, ventilation, and laundry systems at FCJ are designed for use by the number of prisoners housed. The demands placed on these systems are causing them to fail.

The air handling systems are overburdened; they break down. There are leaking pipes throughout the facility, broken or missing security cameras, damaged ceiling tile and overflowing toilets. On 5 North, body heat alone uses more than 50% of the air conditioning capacity. The plumbing problems persist, with toilet leaks and inoperable sinks. The electrical systems are so strained that power regularly goes out in the dental unit. It is almost impossible to work productively in this environment," reported Griefinger.

Sewage regularly overflows from toilets, leaks from the bottom of others, and drips from pipes. The stench is so persistent in some units that prisoners have difficulty keeping down food and medicine. The leaking pipes create stagnant pools of water on the floor.

In one housing unit, Dr. Griefinger found; wet clothing draped from the railings -- hopeful to dry in humidity exceeding 90%. The temperature was well over 80 degrees. Hot, especially for patients on psychotropic medications that makes them vulnerable to heat injury such as heat stroke. Puddles outside the showers, mold inside, and mold like a fur carpet on the ceilings. Acrid. The air conditioning cannot keep up with the heat and moisture.

Dr. Griefinger also found the laundry system had failed. The laundry is in a crisis. On the days of my visit, all the dryers in the main jail had been broke for a week...The inmates are washing their own underwear, in their little sinks with hand soap, hanging them to dry on the railings. This is unsanitary. The wet air further humidifies the air, already wet with perspiration from the crowding and the inadequate air handling equipment.

Shifting Blame

As the media and court have put the spotlight on the jail, Sheriff Barrett and the County Commission have played the blame game. Barrett has said that, among other things, a county hiring freeze and the Georgia Department of Corrections failure to take custody of 200 prisoners has contributed to FCJ's dilapidated condition. The County Commission says the Sheriff mismanaged resources, both have a point.

As was widely reported, Barrett's 1992 election to Sheriff made her the Country's first black female to be elected Sheriff. She was very popular and faced no significant opposition in two re-election campaigns. Controversy has so diminished her star that she did not even run for re-election in November 2004.

Ebony magazine interviewed Barrett in her first term. At that time, she said she wanted to supplant the stereotype of the Southern Sheriff as a paunchy, white, good old boy. A June 2004 appearance before a federal grand jury, however, has placed her in the same place as those good old boys: in trouble with the law. Over the last 25 years, over two dozen Georgia Sheriff's have been indicted and convicted. Many of them took payoffs from drug dealers in the early 1980's.

Barrett is being investigated for investing $7 million in excess money from tax auction liens. That money belongs to the original homeowner, but it often goes unclaimed.

While the $5 million invested with MetLife has been recovered with interest, it is the $2 million invested with Provident Capital that has caused scrutiny. That firm lent the money to several people who made about $40,000 in campaign contributions to Barrett, which Barrett later returned but never reported. The $2 million was never recovered. The grand jury is trying to determine if the investments were illegal and made in exchange for campaign contributions.

Fulton County Commission chairwoman, Karen Handel, argues Barrett has mismanaged resources and failed to take advantage of money the county has provided for hiring. No amount of money or staffing is going to take care of gross mismanagement," she said. Griefinger told Judge Shoob that Jail staff appears to be doing everything they can with limited resources.

Understaffing Causes
Substantial Violence

The fact a 20 year veteran of inspecting jails and prisons refuses to enter prisoner areas at FCJ attests to the dangerous situation that lies within its bowels. Outbreaks of violence are common, putting the lives and safety of prisoners and staff at risk of harm.

One prisoner, Anthony Wimbush, was assaulted by four other prisoners on FCJ's sixth floor. He was beaten so badly that he sustained serious head trauma and brain damage. He is in a coma and is not expected to recover. Another prisoner, whose ear was partially bitten off in a fight, did not get immediate medical attention because a guard had not seen the attack. Another prisoner committed suicide.

Exacerbating tension at the jail is the gross overcrowding. Amazingly, little is done to get those who do not belong at the jail on their way. For 19 months, FCJ held Hen Van Nguyen, a mentally ill Vietnamese man who speaks no English. Nguyen was found incompetent to stand trial on two counts of aggravated stalking. On February 3, 2003, a state judge ordered he be taken to the Georgia Regional Hospital. As of June 2004, he was still sitting in FCJ awaiting transfer.

Another prisoner, Willie Hill, was booked into FCJ on November 23, 2003, after being sentenced to time served for jaywalking. Seven months later, he was still in the jail despite not having seen a lawyer or gone to court. State prisoner, Timothy Grier was brought to FCJ on March 9, 2003, for a civil case that was resolved on March 11, 2003. He was still sitting in FCJ awaiting transfer to prison on June 11.

Even after a court orders release of a prisoner after first appearance, it is usually days before they are eventually released.

Because the County Commission imposed a hiring freeze, Sheriff Barrett has been unable to replace her dwindling troops. It continues to be my hope that the Board of Commissioners will be able to provide the resources that we need. In the meantime, the entirety of the system...all of us is working to move people through the system," said Barrett.

Changing of the Guard

The combination of the investment investigation and problems at FCJ have caused Barrett's once bright star to flameout. Events spiraled quickly after FCJ prisoner Cara Williams, 23, escaped on June 17, 2004, while a rap video was recorded at the jail.

Jailed rapper Clifford Harris, whose stage name is T-I, was being filmed while Williams slipped out as an employee dressed in medical scrubs. Barrett said she had no idea the video was being taped at FCJ. That event showed Barrett had no clue about what was happening at FCJ.

Judge Shoob decided on July 14, 2004, to appoint John Gibson as jail custodian. Gibson has authority to hire and fire jail staff, order improvements within the jails budget, and ask the Fulton County Commission for more money if needed. The county must pay him $10,000 per month and provide him with a car equipped for emergency use. In January 2004, Gibson retired as prison administrator of the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

Days after Gibson's appointment, Barrett announced that she would take a leave of absence from August 1 to the end of her term, December 31. That caused Gov. Sonny Perdue to suspend Barrett for 60 days. Following that announcement, Fulton County Chief Superior Court Judge, Doris Downs, appointed Theodore Jackson, as the interim Sheriff.

Jackson is former head of the Atlanta FBI office. In that capacity, he helped in the investigation into the assassination of Dekalb County Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown. That investigation led to a life sentence for Brown's opponent: Sheriff Sidney Dorsey.

There's a new Sheriff in town," said Gibson as he visited prisoners at FCJ. This place is nasty," prisoner Corey Lee told Gibson. We've got gnats flying around everywhere and it's dangerous.

The prisoners were assured by Gibson, FCJ would be cleaned up, but he made it apparent the prisoners would be doing the cleaning. You have a responsibility, to do what you're supposed to do, keep it clean. You've got to live here, I get to go home.

Gibson's task now is to bring FCJ's conditions within constitutional norms. His first achievement came when he got the air conditioning working throughout the jail. I have a lot of work to do in a short period of time," Gibson said. If I need staff or money, I'll ask for it. But I won't ask for what I don't need.

The need for money has already reached $25 million to improve plumbing, heating, and other systems at the jail. Rather than devote more money to the Sheriff's Department, the County Commission wants that Department to better manage its $80 million annual budget.

Fulton County freed up funds to fill 76 positions at the Sheriffs Department in September 2004. Dr. Griefinger says a lot of work remains at the jail. There are ongoing safety violations and unsafe work practices that need to be addressed immediately," he said. Other than the staffing issue, I believe the jail is in turnaround mode."

On November 18, 2004, Dr. Griefinger issued an updated report. He found the conditions at FCJ have shown an improvement" since his September visit.

Filling the vacancies that had been frozen is a welcome relief in the jail," Griefinger wrote about the County's decision in September to fund 54 security personnel. This improves security and has provided better access to medical care" because prisoners don't have to wait so long for a guard escort to the infirmary.

Local citizens assured a new Sheriff will be in town on January 1, 2005, as they elected Myron Freeman to the post in November. Freeman will still not have control of FCJ until Judge Shoob determines it meets constitutional muster. PLN will report future developments at FCJ. See: Harper v. Bennett, USDC Northern District Georgia, Case No: 04-CV-1416.

Additional Sources: New York Times; Atlanta Journal Constitution;

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Related legal case

Harper v. Bennett