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United States Sues Georgia County Jail over Unconstitutional Medical and Living Conditions

by John E. Dannenberg

Using its investigative powers under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997, the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) investigated conditions at the Terrell County, Georgia jail (Terrell).
There it found unconstitutional conditions related to medical care, mental health care, protection from harm, environmental health and safety, and fire safety. To remedy these problems the DOJ sued Terrell County in U.S. District Court, prevailing on a summary judgment motion.

The DOJ had, in fact, investigated the Terrell County Jail in 1995, 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2003 ? each time finding the same violations it had found in 1995 despite recommended remedial actions. In addition, the Terrell County Grand Jury, which investigated the jail in 2002 and 2003, found conditions at the facility were ?inadequate, inhumane and unsafe.? Sheriff John W. Bowens admitted the accuracy of these findings.

Medical care reports showed that in 70 of 118 times that county Emergency Medical Technicians recommended emergency medical treatment at the jail, it was refused. Other complaints dealt with staffing deficiencies, including shortages, sloth in opening cells and failure to provide medical screening (particularly for infectious diseases). Terrell prisoners have suffered serious harm from complications of diabetes, high blood pressure and denial of medications. Necessary surgeries, no matter how serious, were delayed until prisoners were transferred to other jurisdictions.

The jail?s record of two suicides and nine attempted suicides since 2003 speaks volumes as to the inadequacy of mental health care. The same staff-related deficiencies noted for medical care carried over to mental health treatment. Isolation cells were observed to have numerous protrusions that could be used as hanging points by suicidal prisoners.

There has also been a notable lack of protection of vulnerable Terrell prisoners from harm. Sheriff Bowens blamed this on the antiquated structure of the facility. There are no security cameras, thus not even rudimentary monitoring of the cell areas is possible.

The prisoner population is plagued by the presence of mice, roaches and other vermin, rising to the level of an admitted ?infestation.? Plumbing and sewage fixtures either leak or don?t work and routinely flood the cell blocks. There are no provisions to prevent food-borne illnesses. And in the event of fire, the complaint noted widespread combustible materials, an absence of smoke barriers and smoke detectors, no sprinkler system, deficient evacuation procedures, a lack of fire emergency training and a policy of permitting prisoners to possess matches and lighters.

Upon reviewing the DOJ?s motion for summary judgment, the court found the DOJ was entitled to a ruling in its favor because ?the conditions are substandard and violate the inmates? constitutional rights.? The latter finding applied separately to the categories of medical care, mental health care (including suicide prevention), in-prison violence, environmental deficiencies and fire safety. While Sheriff Bowens conceded these constitutional violations, he nonetheless pleaded for mercy because he received insufficient funding from the county to remedy the deficiencies.

The court was not impressed. Since there were no material disputes as to the facts, the court granted the DOJ?s motion for summary judgment and ordered improvements at the jail. It left to further briefings to determine whether the Sheriff, the county or both would be held liable, and to establish specific procedures to address the constitutional violations.

The case is still pending, with briefs for appropriate remedial issues having been submitted by both parties. See: United States v. Terrell County, 457 F.Supp.2d 1359 (MD GA 2006).

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Related legal case

United States v. Terrell County