Fulton County Commission Delay Poses Health Threats

16th December, 2015
Southern Center for Human Rights
Mary Sidney Harbert

Fulton County Commissioners are dragging their feet in making a decision about who should provide healthcare at the Fulton County Jail, posing a public health threat to jail staff, detainees, and ultimately the community.

Unfortunately, this indifference to urgent medical and mental health needs at the jail is not new.  Since 1999, the Jail has been under two federal court orders for unconstitutional jail conditions, overcrowding, understaffing and failure to provide adequate HIV care.  


While the County procrastinates, Corizon, a private company with a history of providing poor medical care, continues to serve as the Jail’s healthcare provider. Corizon’s performance at the Fulton Jail was criticized in a review by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care in 2014, signaling systemic problems, most notably access to care.  Continuing Corizon’s contract despite this troubling record shows a lack of understanding of the role of jail healthcare for Fulton County public health, and disturbing disregard for staff and people detained in the Fulton County Jail.  


If the County Commission believes that it can eliminate or even reduce the mental health portion of the Jail’s healthcare contract by diverting people with mental illness away from the jail, it needs to be prepared to offer mental health services in the community.  As was reported, 80 percent of people who were incarcerated between July and September had a mental health need.  


To date, the needs of people with mental illness in Fulton County are not being met, and adding more seriously mentally ill people to the streets who require care is shortsighted.  County Commissioner Arrington is absolutely right when he said delaying a decision is “playing with fire.” 


In addition to mental health, there are serious healthcare needs in the community that will have a detrimental impact on the jail if it is not prepared to act.  Fulton County is at the epicenter of the reemerging HIV crisis in the United States, with the highest rate of black people living with the diagnosis.  About 40 percent of people in jail have a chronic medical condition, for which a third were being treated before being incarcerated.  Georgia has among the highest rates of uninsured residents in the United States, and has rejected Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.   


These stark realities exert enormous pressure on the jail healthcare system, and with no planning for the healthcare contract in place to address these serious needs, the consequences will be great.  The medical and mental health needs of those who are incarcerated are on average more serious than the rest of the county’s population, and with problems identified with the provider that need correcting, it is time to act.


Mary Sidney Harbert was the investigator during the last lawsuit Harper v. Fulton County filed in 2004 and terminated in 2014 which named as parties the county commissioners and the county sheriff.