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Detainee Allegedly “Eaten Alive” by Vermin in Overcrowded Atlanta Jail

by Jacob Barrett

A detainee found dead in Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail (FCJ) on September 13, 2022, was “eaten alive” by insects, according to an attorney hired by the dead man’s family. Michael Harper said his clients were “horrified” by squalid conditions revealed in photos of the cell where 35-year-old Lashawn Thompson died.

He had been at the jail for three months since a misdemeanor battery arrest, awaiting mental health treatment that never arrived, Harper said. The attorney also pointed to a copy of the county medical examiner’s report, which he said noted Thompson’s body was “covered in bed bugs,” of which the jail was suffering “a severe infestation.” The cause of death, however, remains “undetermined,” according to the office of Sheriff Patrick Labat.

On April 14, 2023, Labat announced that 600 FCJ detainees would be moved to lockups in other counties. The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) is also making “an emergency expenditure of $500,000,” Labat said, to clean up the “infestation of bed bugs, lice and other vermin” at FCJ. Extending condolences to Thompson’s family, Labat vowed “a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.”

So what’s going on? An October 2022 report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provided one answer: FCSO jails are unmanageably overcrowded, burdening the county with “costly lawsuits and complaints alleging prolonged detention, neglect, and inhumane conditions.” Yet despite having reasonable alternatives to alleviate this overcrowding, FCSO asked to lease more jail space in the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) – a request unsupported by data that show it will cost taxpayers more money and keep citizens unnecessarily incarcerated, the report found.

According to the report, FCSO had 435 people “held in custody because of inability to pay bail” at the end of September 2022, the month Thompson died. Of those, 293 sat in the main Fulton County Jail (FCJ), like he did. Meanwhile, those who could post bail were released. The county “detains hundreds of people charged only with misdemeanors,” like Thompson, the report said, arguing this shows a significant share of the county’s jail population – now near 3,000 – could be released by eliminating wealth-based detention.

But even with no change in the law, better management under current rules could accomplish much, the report continued; Georgia law mandates that criminal defendants denied bail have their cases heard by a grand jury within 90 days. But Fulton County has consistently failed to meet that statutory requirement, the report said.

It pointed to data showing “that 1,666 individuals, or 46.6 percent of people in Fulton County custody as of September 14, 2022, were unindicted.” This failure to timely indict defendants leaves hundreds of pre-trial detainees unnecessarily held in lockup, the report said; even more could be released if those facing minor misdemeanor charges were not held in jail.

The report further accused Fulton County of not fully utilizing diversion programs to reduce its jail population. The county and the City of Atlanta share a diversion program, Policing Alternative and Diversion Initiative (PAD). It is designed to limit the number of people introduced to the criminal justice system by transferring arrestees into a “trauma-informed, intensive care-management program where they can receive a wide range of support services,” the report said. PAD started as a mobile response in 2017 but since 2018 has operated from a physical location. However, neither government has taken full advantage of the program, the ACLU report claims.

For example, the first half of 2022 saw 176 people diverted to PAD who otherwise would have been booked into a county jail. But during the same period, there were 312 other people arrested and booked into FCJ – during PAD operating hours – even though their charges were also eligible for diversion.

Atlanta and Fulton County have addressed the overcrowding problem by leasing jail space at ACDC and shuffling detainees around. FCSO transferred 350 female detainees to ACDC on December 17, 2022, relieving “chronic overcrowding within county jail facilities.” But where did they come from? The Union City Jail – which was originally used to handle overcrowding and disrepair at FCJ. The transfer of male detainees from FCJ was also then announced; it was scheduled later after outcry over Thompson’s death.

The ACLU report concludes these transfers do not solve the problem; rather, they merely perpetuate the cycle of mass incarceration. “By interrupting this cycle of [incarceration] growth”, the report concluded, “with policies and practice changes that address the cause of jail overcrowding, Fulton County and the city of Atlanta can significantly reduce the number of people they incarcerate.” See: There Are Better Solutions: An Analysis of the Fulton County Jail Population Data, ACLU of Georgia (2022).

In January 2023, the county’s Board of Commissioners approved an $11.2 million annual budget increase for FCSO, restoring $5.1 million previously cut from operational funds in response to the demands of racial justice protesters following the 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops. That puts the new 2023 budget close to $140.2 million. FCSO earmarked some of the funds to pay guard overtime at FCJ and give salary increases to both sworn and civilian staff.

On March 31, 2023, the county broke ground for a new Center of Diversion and Services (CDS). It is designed to be Atlanta’s first all-hours alternative to jail, slowing the inflow of detainees at county and city lockups by providing a “person-centered approach for people experiencing homelessness, mental health [crises], substance abuse and poverty.”

Reacting to the groundbreaking, PAD officials restrained their enthusiasm – noting that when the new CDS opens in 2024, it will be the first time Atlanta has had a sobering center in over 25 years.

Even with CDS, Fulton County still faces a backup of detainees, waiting for courts to clear a backlog of cases delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. So county officials plan to build a new jail four times the size of the overcrowded FCJ, to the tune of $2 billion.

FCSO wasted no time turning Thompson’s death into a talking point for the new jail plan, saying the tragedy “is precisely why Sheriff Labat continues to call [for] building a new Fulton County Jail and Criminal Justice Complex which will provide humane care in a safe and clean environment that offers mental health and other services that provide a strong foundation for rehabilitation.”

Additional sources: Atlanta First News, The Appeal, Capital B News, Insider, KAKE, WABE, WXIA

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