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Fulton County Jail Detainees Ended 2022 Freezing and Defecating in Trash Bags

by Jo Ellen Nott

With no end in sight for staffing shortages at the Fulton County Jail (FCJ) in Atlanta, detainees got a cruel blow the last week of 2022: A winter storm froze water lines in the metro area, compromising the jail’s water supply and leaving detainees unable to bathe or use the toilet.  

At the same time the jail also experienced problems with its HVAC system, leaving some detainees shivering in temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Jail administration provided extra blankets to those affected but did not allow the detainees to wear those while walking around the jail.

Family members worried about the conditions their loved ones endured. Leslie Frazier said her son went entire days without being able to shower or use the toilet in his shared cell.  On December 26, 2022, Frazier said the situation had gone on for 72 hours and the detainees were using trash bags instead of toilets. 

The Fulton County Sheriff's Office (FCSO) set up portable toilets during the water shut-off and provided bottled water. Sheriff Patrick Labat reported water pressure at the jail had been fully restored by December 30, 2022.

The December water shut-off and loss of heat capped off a year in which the jail was criticized for inhumane conditions and deaths. Sheriff Labat reported on September 21, 2022, that he had lost more staff than he was able to replace. By October 10, 2022, there were a minimum of 155 vacancies in the jail staff. The Southern Center for Human Rights cited mismanagement and understaffing which has persisted at the jail for decades, resulting in multiple lawsuits and consent decrees. [See, for example: PLN, Nov. 2022, p.38.]

The September 2022 death of a 35-year-old homeless man in the mental health ward focused attention on the jail’s problems, when Lashawn Pannell’s body was found covered in lice and his own feces. [See: PLN, Dec. 5, 2022, online.]

The Atlanta Objective with George Chidi gave a full report on Thompson’s death after he was found face-down in a toilet bowl on the jail’s psych floor. The deputy guard who found him had to call for someone in a hazmat suit before she left to vomit.  

The report also noted that Thompson’s is one of 14 custodial deaths for FCSO in 2022. Seven died at Grady Hospital or Piedmont Hospital. Eight deaths were attributed to natural causes. Three have been reported as suspected homicides.

An October 2022 investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that FCJ had more detainee deaths since 2009 than any of the state’s five largest jails. Deaths at the jail quadrupled from 2021 to 2022, even as one county commissioner suggested cutting funding to one of the metro area’s most successful pre-arrest diversion programs, the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative (PAD). After public outcry in response to the comments by Commissioner Bob Ellis, the full Board took up the county’s 2023 budget in November 2022 with a vow to take “no action to modify this funding.”  

Sources:  The Appeal, Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Atlanta Objective, Georgia Public Broadcasting, Southern Center for Human Rights, WXIA

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