The Justice Department said Thursday it is investigating conditions at a jail in Fulton County, Ga., citing reports of violence, environmental deterioration and the death last year of an inmate who was covered in lice and feces.
The civilian inquiry, part of a broader effort by the department to examine conditions in prisons and jails across the country, will also examine whether officers used excessive force, the availability of medical care and the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.
“Detention or imprisonment in prison should not include exposure to unconstitutional living conditions that put lives in danger or risk of serious harm from attacks,” Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general who leads the agency’s civil rights division, said in announcing the investigation. “Prison facilities must provide constitutional and humane conditions in which all people can live safely while they go through the criminal process.”
The government and the Fulton County sheriff’s office said in a joint statement that they plan to cooperate fully.
Conditions at Fulton County Jail have been the subject of criticism for years. The prison was under federal supervision from 2006 to 2015 after a court found the detention complex was overcrowded, understaffed and dangerous. Very cramped conditions in 2020 led an infectious disease expert to to warn of a massive outbreak of coronavirus at the prison unless it drastically reduced its population size.
In her announcement, Ms Clarke said there was “significant justification” for opening the inquiry, including an acknowledgment by local police of the prison’s dilapidated condition and a “deeply concerning” level of violence, with the prison averaging more than one stabbing. per day at one point last year. Inmates at the jail are often people of color, she added, saying 87 percent were Black.
She also pointed to the death of an inmate, LaShawn Thompson, 35, in September. Mr. Thompson, who was arrested on a charge of battery, was held in a filthy cell in the prison’s psychiatric ward and died after weeks of severe neglect, a private autopsy conducted on behalf of his family said.
The medical examiner found Mr Thompson was malnourished and dehydrated, had lost 32 pounds in less than 90 days, and had ingrown hairs, dirty fingernails and “countless” insects all over his body. The examiner also wrote that Mr. Thompson, who had schizophrenia, had not received medication for his condition for more than a month.
Advocacy groups welcomed news of the Justice Department’s investigation.
Fallon McClure, the deputy director of policy and advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said in an interview that the Georgia branch recommended that the prison reduce its inmate population in September report.
Ms. McClure pointed to steps taken at a jail in neighboring Cobb County, where a smaller population allowed cell blocks to be renovated. “It’s much easier to improve conditions if you’re not overcrowded,” she said.
The Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit public interest law firm that wrote to the Justice Department in April about Mr. Thompson’s case, described the investigation as a step forward.
Its executive director, Terrica Ganzy, called the investigation “a significant step toward reckoning for the lives tragically and senselessly lost, and for the many people who continue to suffer rampant outrage and abuse in Fulton prisons.”
At least four officers in the prison were arrested or fired for misconduct this year. One case involved a detention officer who now faces felony charges of aggravated assault and cruelty to inmates.
The prison too opened its doors to the local news media this spring to highlight the poor conditions, including wards that were unusable, bed shortages, water leaks and plumbing problems, rusting cell doors, large holes in the walls and staff.
In May, a prisoner in the prison tunneled through a wall to an adjacent cell block stabbing another inmate, prison officers said, prompting a search of both cells and the seizures of weapons, including “stems made from parts of the dilapidated building infrastructure.”