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Georgia Jail Settles Suit Filed by Mentally Ill Female Detainees With Policy Changes and $1.2 Million in Attorney Fees and Costs

by Matt Clarke

On April 4, 2022, the federal court for the Northern District of Georgia gave final approval to a settlement in a lawsuit brought by mentally ill women incarcerated at the South Fulton Jail. The agreement included numerous changes to jail policies and practices, along with monitoring and enforcement provisions plus $1.2 million for Plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs.

The suit was filed in 2019 by attorneys Devon Orland and Anne Kuhns of the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), “a federally-funded protection and advocacy system for people experiencing disabilities,” accusing the jail of holding mentally ill women in isolation 23 hours a day under sordid conditions. The complaint included “photographs that showed standing toilet water on the floor, a trail of urine under a cell door, bloody clothes in living areas and feces and blood smeared on the walls.”

The named plaintiffs, M.J. and K.H., represented a class of “all people housed in the South Fulton Jail who experience serious mental illness and cannot function within the general population … because of the nature or severity of their psychiatric disability.” Their suit accused jail officials of violating their rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act (RA), 29 U.S.C. § 701, et seq.

Following a three-day evidentiary hearing the district court issued a preliminary injunction (PI) requiring Defendants give class members minimum out-of-cell time and provide sanitary conditions of confinement, as well as out-of-cell therapeutic activities and help maintaining personal hygiene, plus staff training to deal with non-acute mentally ill prisoners. Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

That court decided that 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(2)’s requirement that a PI “automatically expire after 90 days unless made ‘final’” meant that only the issuance of a permanent injunction would prevent expiration of a PI. Because 90 days had already expired, the judges held that the appeal was moot and dismissed it on July 14, 2021, also vacating the order granting the PI. See: Ga. Advocacy Office v. Jackson, 4 F.4th 1200 (11th Cir. 2021); vacated after settlement was reached in Geor. Advocacy Office v. Jackson, 33 F.4th 1325 (11th Cir. 2022).

Attorneys Atteeyah Hollie and Ryan Primerano of the Southern Center for Human Rights and Jared Klorfein and Michael A. Caplan of the Atlanta law firm Caplan Cobb joined the effort. On September 13, 2021, the district court partially granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, preserving claims against Sheriff Patrick Labat. It also adopted a magistrate’s recommendation and found that Plaintiffs were likely to prevail on claims of deliberate indifference to their serious medical needs and unconstitutional use of solitary confinement with inadequate out-of-cell time — citing Olmstead v. L.C. ex rel. Zimring, 527 U.S. 581 (1999) — as well as unconstitutionally unsanitary conditions and violations of ADA and RA.

That got defendants to the settlement table. On November 1, 2021, the Court gave initial approval to a settlement agreement that guaranteed the class four hours of out-of-cell time daily five days a week, one hour of which was to be outdoors or in a gym in inclement weather. One hour of out-of-cell time was required on the other two days.

The agreement also requires mental health professionals to conduct rounds, communicate with class members, and provide therapeutic activities (or referral to a higher-level provider in the event of mental distress). It obligates the jail to keep detailed records on the offering of and participation in recreational and therapeutic activities and has provisions for those testing positive for COVID-19.

The agreement set a minimum of two hours, five days a week for therapeutic activities, which may include art or music therapy, group counseling, medication management, meditation, and maintenance of personal hygiene. It requires class members be given access to drinking water, soft-bound books, and newspapers. It also requires the jail to provide toiletries and personal hygiene items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, sanitary napkins, tampons, shampoo, toilet paper, and soap, as well as clean bedding (including a blanket), towels, uniforms, and underwear. It prohibits the serving of soured, moldy, or expired food.

The settlement requires cleanliness in the cells and common areas. The women must also be given a chance to shower daily. It also provides for staff training in working with people who have psychiatric disabilities. And it includes a provision for monitoring by GAO with regular meetings and full access to records, prisoners, and jail cells. The Court retains jurisdiction for at least one year.

“When I was in the jail a few years ago, when the jail was dirty and there was nothing to do, the living conditions hurt my mental health,” said named plaintiff J.N. “I got so tired of being locked in a concrete room all day. It felt like being a bird in a cage that can’t fly anymore. It felt like nobody cared about me.”

In addition to adopting all aspects of the settlement agreement, the final order approving the settlement blessed a negotiated agreement for Defendants to pay $1.2 million in Plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs. See: Georgia Advocacy Office v. Labat, USDC (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:19-cv-01634. 

Additional sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Reuters

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Geor. Advocacy Office v. Jackson

Georgia Advocacy Office v. Labat

Ga. Advocacy Office v. Jackson