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Deaths and Lawsuits Mount at “Disgusting” Atlanta Jail

After a gruesome toll of 10 detainee deaths in 2023, Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail (FCJ) recorded its first fatality of the new year on January 10, 2024. Michael Anthony Holland, 36, was found unresponsive in his cell and later died at Grady Memorial Hospital.

Holland had been held since May 4, 2023, on charges of aggravated assault against an officer and obstruction of law enforcement by threats or violence. Like the majority of U.S. jail detainees—at least 60%, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—he was left in jail to await trial not because he was dangerous but simply because he was too poor to post bond.

Before that, a “mass stabbing” at FCJ on August 31, 2023, left one detainee dead and four others injured. Jail staff treated one and sent three to local hospitals. The death of Dayvion Blake, 23, was the tenth at the jail in 2023 and the fifth in as many weeks. Blake was arrested in January 2023 on charges of cocaine possession and battery. At first denied bond, he was granted one set at $15,500 in June 2023. But he couldn’t afford it, so he remained incarcerated until his death.

County Sheriff Pat Labat blamed the deaths on “dangerous overcrowding” and “crumbling walls” at a building he wants to replace. “We should have had a new jail 15 years ago,” agreed District Attorney Fani Willis. After she famously filed racketeering charges against former Pres. Donald J. Trump (R) for trying to reverse his losing outcome in Georgia in the 2020 presidential election, Trump was booked at the jail, which he called “disgusting.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. As PLN reported, detainee LaShawn Thompson, 35, was allegedly “eaten alive” during an “infestation of bed bugs, lice and other vermin” that also forced Labat to transfer 600 detainees to lockups in other jurisdictions in April 2023. [See: PLN, May 2023, p.16.] Shortly after that, the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation into conditions at the jail on July 13, 2023.

Violence is so bad that Labat told Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristin Clarke that detainees were “crafting shanks from the crumbling walls.” But they are not the only ones perpetuating violence. On September 28, 2023, DOJ announced the indictment of former jail guard Monique Clark, 32, for using excessive force on an unnamed detainee during a June 2023 booking on trespassing and public drunkenness charges. Body camera footage captured Clark grabbing the neck of the 37-year-old, identified as “C.B.,” who then collapsed. Calling that “indefensible,” Labat fired Clark, who is federally charged with deprivation of rights under color of law, as well as charges of aggravated assault, reckless conduct and violation of oath. See: United States v. Clark, USDC (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:23-cr-00307.

Rising Death Toll

The same day that Blake died at the end of August 2023, another FCJ detainee was found unresponsive in his cell and transported to a local hospital, where he died on September 3, 2023. Shawndre Delmore, 24, had been held at the jail for five months on burglary and willful obstruction charges. After his death, his family demanded an investigation into how Delmore was “mysteriously” granted a compassionate release after being admitted to the hospital ICU—meaning his death did not count toward the jail’s total, the family’s lawyers pointed out.

The summer’s spate of deaths began on July 31, 2023, when Montay Stinson, 40, was found unresponsive in his cell, where he was held for inability to post a $3,000 bond for a second-degree burglary charge.

Then on August 10, 2023, Christopher Smith, 34, was also found unresponsive and died at a hospital the next day. He was being held without bond on unspecified felony and misdemeanor charges.

On August 17, 2023, Alexander Hawkins, 66, was found unresponsive and died in a jail medical unit cell. He was being held on a $5,000 bond for a shoplifting charge.

On August 26, 2023, Samuel Lawrence, 34, died at a hospital after he was found unresponsive in his cell at the jail, where he was being held on a $30,000 bond for a second-degree arson charge. His cellmate Zayrious Shields, 18, now faces murder charges; an autopsy report released two months later showed that Lawrence was not only strangled but suffered blunt force trauma to his head, neck, chest, legs and arms.

State lawmakers opened an investigation into the jail with a hearing on November 2, 2023, where FCJ General Counsel Amelia Joiner reported that the average detainee spends 295 days at the jail, almost 10 times longer than the 30 days recommended by experts. At the end of August 2023, 35% of the jail’s approximately 3,500 detainees were not convicted of a crime, Joiner said. About 1,000 of them suffer from serious mental illness, she added—like Noni Battiste-Kosoko, 19, whom cellmates recalled often banged her head against a concrete wall. She died in July 2023 at Atlanta Detention Center instead of FCJ, thanks to the deal Labat cut with the other lockup to hold county detainees while he cleaned up the vermin that killed Thompson.

Joiner also testified that the jail had recorded nearly 300 stabbings in 2023—meaning the typical detainee faces almost a 10% chance of being knifed—among almost 1,000 assaults, 68 of which were detainee assaults on guards. With 300 beds considered “inoperable,” Labat’s transfers had lowered the detainee count to about 2,900 by November 2023, Joiner said, leaving just 13 sleeping on the floor—down from 600 forced to do so earlier in the year.

Lawsuits Pile Up

Four days before he died in August 2023, Lawrence filed a handwritten lawsuit pro se in federal court for the Northern District of Georgia, accusing guards of violating his civil rights with excessive force, kicking him while handcuffed and Tasering him while restrained on a medical bed. Not only did he fail to receive medical treatment, his complaint alleged, but he was also placed in an isolation cell with no mattress and no working sink or toilet—all of which guards failed to report. See: Lawrence v. Fulton Cty. Jail, USDC (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:23-cv-03774.

Jail deaths have sparked lawsuits, too, including one announced by Blake’s family in October 2023. Another suit was filed on March 16, 2023, by Joe Kendall, the father of an autistic teenager with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia who died at FCJ in February 2021. Shane Kendall, 18, was being held for allegedly shooting his adoptive mother when he started a fight with his cellmate allegedly to force a transfer to a different cell. For that he was disciplined with 48 days in solitary confinement, but the thought of going in “the hole” drove him to commit suicide, his dad said in his complaint. The suit also alleges neglect by the employees of the jail’s private contracted medical provider, NaphCare. See: Kendall v. Fulton Cty., USDC (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:23-cv-00416.

Despite 300 similar lawsuits against the firm, the county renewed its contract with NaphCare for $33 million in November 2023.  


Additional sources: AP News, The Appeal, Atlanta News First, CNN, New York Post, NPR News, U.S. Today, WAGA, WXIA

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