Press Release: Final Settlement Reached in South Fulton Jail Lawsuit
On April 4th, United States Northern District Judge William M. Ray, II approved the final settlement agreement proposed by the parties in Georgia Advocacy Office, et al. v. Labat, et al.
Background: In April of 2019, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Georgia Advocacy Office filed a lawsuit on behalf of a putative class of women with serious mental illness held in torturous conditions of solitary confinement for over 23 hours a day at the South Fulton Jail in Union City, Georgia. Plaintiffs presented photographs from an inspection by the Georgia Advocacy Office showing garbage strewn cells, standing toilet water on the floor, a trail of urine flowing from a cell door, bloody clothes and underwear stained with fecal matter lying in the living areas, toilets full of garbage, and feces and blood on the walls. These women, some of whom were caged because of petty offenses, would sometimes remain in their squalid cells around the clock for weeks or months on end.
One of the original named plaintiffs, M.J., was a 20-year-old woman experiencing homelessness. She had been arrested in November of 2018 and charged with criminal trespass for allegedly refusing to leave a shopping mall when asked. She had a $500 bond that she couldn’t afford to pay. Because of her mental illness, jailers isolated M.J. in a so-called “mental health pod” where she was locked inside her cell for over 23 hours per day on average for nearly a year. She twice attempted suicide at the jail during her prolonged isolation. Another woman with serious mental illness, Kesha Brownlee, died after swallowing a plastic utensil after months in solitary confinement.
In July of 2019, Judge Ray issued a preliminary injunction ordering the Sheriff of Fulton County to take immediate steps to remedy the jail’s unconstitutional conditions and usage of solitary confinement. The settlement builds upon the previously-entered preliminary injunction.
“I feel really good about the settlement, and am happy that I helped make a difference for people like me,” said JN, one of the plaintiffs. “In particular, the group therapy and other activities that we can now participate in give us a light in what can be a very dark place…Before this lawsuit, there was just nothing to do. We hardly ever left our cells, and officers would pick and choose who they let out. Most people got an hour or less per day out of their cells, and some people did not get to come out at all. When we came out, there was nothing to do, and we almost never got to go outdoors for fresh air. On top of that, the staff hardly ever cleaned or gave us clean clothes.” (Read the rest of JN’s statement here.)
Among other things, the settlement mandates:
- at least four hours of out-of-cell time, five days a week (one hour of which must be recreation time) with an hour of out-of-cell time offered on the other two days of the week for people with severe mental illness;
- opportunities for meaningful therapeutic activities;
- access to clean drinking water, personal hygiene items, reading materials, a sufficient supply of clothing and underwear, and a quality control process so that people are no longer served moldy, spoiled food;
- training for correctional staff supervising people with severe mental illness; and
- a reliable tracking system to ensure people with severe mental illness are receiving out-of-cell time.
“This settlement is an important step to providing critically needed conditions and services to a vulnerable population in the South Fulton Jail,” said Jarred Klorfein of Caplan Cobb.
“The damage caused by the lack of mental health services in the community is compounded by the ongoing harm caused to people with psychiatric disabilities who are not treated and subjected to further abuses while incarcerated,” said Devon Orland of the Georgia Advocacy Office. “We appreciate that the Sheriff has taken responsibility for ensuring that people within the South Fulton Jail are allowed out of their cells and are provided treatment.”
“This settlement should improve the lives of people with serious mental illness who are held in the South Fulton Jail. But years-long federal lawsuits will not solve over-incarceration, which is at the heart of the issues plaguing the jail. To avoid needless suffering, we must combat our impulse to charge and jail the mentally ill,” said Atteeyah Hollie of the Southern Center for Human Rights.