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Fulton County Jail Consents to Improve Dismal Conditions

The Fulton County Jail (FCJ) has entered into an agreement to correct the “dismal environmental conditions and poor maintenance” at the facility. A Georgia federal district court approved a consent order on February 7, 2006 to solidify the badly needed changes.

The FCJ comprises three facilities, holding 2,250, 200 and 100 prisoners. Each is badly overcrowded. The Court appointed an expert, Dr. Robert B. Greifinger of Dobbs Ferry, New York to tour FCJ and issue a report on conditions with recommendations to correct the problems found.

What Dr. Greifinger found frightened him. “Extremely tense. Each of my senses raising an alarm. Scary. With almost two decades of visiting inmate housing units, it was the first time that I declined to go in,” wrote Dr. Greifinger in a May 31, 2004 report. What Dr. Greifinger found on the fifth floor of FCJ was nothing that “came as a surprise to anyone” associated with this litigation.

The fifth floor unit was built for 108, or 200 double-bunked, prisoners. On Dr. Greifinger’s visit it held 59 on the North side, with 18 on the floor. The South side held 326, but had only 12 showers. While Dr.Greifinger’s May visit was described as a “pleasant spring day,” the fifth floor of FCJ was dank, very hot, and full of sweaty bodies. – the air-conditioning had been broken for days. Because wet laundry was hanging on the railings, the air was rank and thick with the scent of wet underwear. No guards were in sight while prisoners randomly milled and buzzed about, banging on the zone doors. Water dripped off of broken ceiling tiles into garbage pails. Prisoners had no choice but to enter and live in that environment.

The “Mental Health Dorm” was no better. There, 273 bodies were crammed into an area built for 108. It was “Hot, especially for patients on psychotropic medications that make them vulnerable to heat injury such as heat stroke.” Dr. Greifinger described the air as “acrid.” Physical conditions were ugly, with “puddles outside the showers, mold inside, mold like a fur carpet on the ceiling.”

The laundry was “in crisis.” All of the dryers at the main jail had been broken for a week, and only one was working at an annex. This forced prisoners to hand-wash their clothes and drape them on railings, waiting for them to dry in humidity exceeding 90%.

Because there was a shortage of guards, chronically ill prisoners missed 15-20% of their appointments with doctors. Moreover, nurses had to delay administration of medication due to a lack of staff to escort them. The staff shortage also caused a delay in serving food, causing it to be served cold.

Dr. Greifinger said his findings necessitated “immediate action to reduce the inmate population, increase the security, staffing, and repair and maintain the basic systems required for basic health and safety, such as laundry, plumbing, electricity, and air handling.” The Court’s consent order addressed these changes.

First, the Board of County Commissioners had been “freezing” guard positions when they became vacant to save money. The Court’s order prohibits this practice, requiring staff levels to reach levels set by the Court. Next, population levels must be reduced and maintained at or below levels of design. In conjunction with that provision, no prisoner “shall be required to sleep on the floor” and no more than two may be housed in a cell. The Court ordered FCJ to speed up prisoner releases and ordered the Georgia Department of Corrections to accept prisoners as soon as the necessary paperwork has been completed.

The replacement, repair and preventative maintenance of mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems was also required by the consent order.’
The Court ordered upgrades and total repair in those areas to be completed by July 1, 2009. Prisoners were ordered to receive at least three sets of clean uniforms and underwear weekly. Linens and towels must be exchanged twice weekly. In April 2006, sewage backed-up into several FCJ housing areas. Jail officials say prisoners were promptly moved out of the affected areas, but this caused overcrowding in other parts of FCJ. In May, 450 FCJ prisoners were ordered locked into their cells as punishment for failing to clean their cell areas. The lockdown was to last 45 days, but six days after not being allowed out for recreation, to make telephone calls or to even take showers, the lockdown ended. 

During the lockdown a pack of prisoners escaped from their cells and at least 20 of them severely beat and kicked unconscious a 26-year-old man in jail for aggravated assault. The lockdown conditions became so bad that one prisoner reported himself for having a weapon in order to be moved. 

While the consent order is now in place, conditions at FCJ have yet to improve. One can’t help but wonder if Brian Nichols’ March 11, 2005 escape from a Fulton County courthouse in Atlanta, which resulted in at least three deaths, was motivated in part to avoid the abysmal conditions at FCJ. See: Harper v. Bennett, USDC ND GA, Case No. 1:04-cv-01416-MHS. 

Additional Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Related legal case

Harper v. Bennett