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Fulton County Ordered to Clean Up Repulsive Jail Conditions for Mentally Ill Women

by David M. Reutter

A Georgia federal district court ordered the Fulton County Sheriff to give more out of cell time and to provide sanitary confinement conditions for women at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail.

The court’s order came in a lawsuit brought by the Georgia Advocacy Office, a nonprofit serving Georgians with disabilities, and the Southern Center for Human Rights. The 88-page complaint, which sought a preliminary injunction, was filed on April 10, 2019.

According to the complaint, over 200 women are held at the jail, and it is estimated that 60 percent to 80 percent of them experience psychiatric disabilities. The jail responded by confining them “in isolation cells for months on end.” Most of the women were jailed for minor offenses, but they remained in solitary confinement because the jail was understaffed and guards were not trained to deal with them.

The complaint contained 29 pictures that illustrated the deplorable conditions of confinement the women endured. It alleged that during tours women were “found lying on the floor and with feces or food smeared on their bodies and cells.” Trash was found strewn across cells, urine was pooled on the floor, toilets were broken and overflowing, and there was an “overpowering odor of feces, urine, and vomit” that made it difficult to breathe. The women sometimes used their issued bedding to clean up standing water, leaving them to “sleep on cold metal bunks without sheets or blankets.”

The unsanitary conditions were so obvious that guards had a longstanding “custom of donning examination gloves before entering the housing units, and of offering gloves to visitors entering with them.” The “combination of psychiatric disabilities and psychological deterioration induced by the conditions” the women lived in caused some to “lose the will or the ability to conduct personal hygiene. They sleep most of the day and stop showering or cleaning their living areas.”

The lack of recreation, out of cell time for social activity, and treatment were alleged to be constitutional violations. The court agreed following evidentiary hearings in July 2019. It found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed at trial, and that the defendants discriminated against the plaintiffs and denied them access to programs and services based upon their disabilities.

The court’s July 23, 2019, order required the defendants to “develop a system to track each individual’s out of cell time” and “that each woman be permitted at least 1 hour recreation time and 2 hours of daily free time” within seven days. It also ordered that within 30 days each woman in the jail’s isolation cells be offered at least four hours of out-of-cell time at least five days a week, with one hour of that being outdoor recreation or indoor gym time. The jail was also given 30 days to submit a plan “for providing sanitary conditions of confinement and out-of-cell therapeutic activities for each women” in isolation.

The Sheriff’s Office said it had 90 unfilled positions and lacked the staff to provide four hours of out-of-cell time. As to that argument, federal district judge William M. Ray said, “Funding is really not my concern today.” There is a “drastic need” to fix the problems, he said. He questioned how jailers could live with themselves, saying the evidence he heard should cause those who are aware of the conditions “to have a hard time sleeping at night.”

Southern Center attorney Sarah Geraghty was happy about the court’s order. “The extreme and extended isolation imposed upon women at the jail and the appalling conditions there have long been a recipe for disaster,” she said. “This order is probably going to save someone’s life.” See: Georgia Advocacy Office v. Jackson, USDC, N.D. Georgia, Case No. 1:19-cv-01634. 


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Related legal case

Georgia Advocacy Office v. Jackson