Justice Department to investigate jail conditions in Georgia's most populous county

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ATLANTA (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into jail conditions in Georgia's most populous county, with officials citing violence, filthy conditions and the death last year of a man whose body was found covered in insects.

Investigators will look at living conditions, access to medical and mental health care, use of excessive force by staff and conditions that may give rise to violence between people held in Fulton County jails, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said during a news conference Thursday. The county's main jail in Atlanta has a long history of problems.

“Our investigation into these matters is guided by one core principle: People held in jails and prisons do not surrender their constitutional and civil rights at the jailhouse door,” Clarke said, noting that a vast majority of people in jails have not been convicted.

People held in Fulton County are “predominantly people of color," she said, adding that data shows 87% of the jail population is Black.

“This is a racial justice issue,” Clarke said.

Sheriff Pat Labat, who took office in 2021, said he welcomes the investigation and is prepared to cooperate fully.

He has “publicly, privately, and repeatedly raised concerns about the dangerous overcrowding, dilapidated infrastructure and critical staffing shortages at the jail,” he said in a statement. The best outcome of the investigation would be confirmation of his repeated assertion that the main jail is not viable and a new jail is needed, Labat said.

Clarke cited the death in September of Lashawn Thompson, 35, in a bedbug-infested cell in the Fulton County Jail's psychiatric wing, noting that an independent autopsy done at his family's request found he died from severe neglect. Photos released earlier this year by attorneys for Thompson's family showed his body covered in insects and a filthy cell strewn with garbage.

“Those circumstances were far from isolated,” Clarke said. “Following Mr. Thompson’s death, evidence emerged that the mental health unit where he died was infested with insects and that the majority of people living in that unit were malnourished and not receiving basic care.”

She said the Justice Department will also look into “whether the Fulton County Jail discriminates against incarcerated people with psychiatric disabilities.”

Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Thompson's family, in April called on the Justice Department to investigate the jail. Michael Harper, another attorney for Thompson's family, said in an emailed statement that the family is “encouraged” by the Justice Department investigation.

“While nothing can undo the injustice that Lashawn Thompson faced, it is a tragedy that can hopefully amount to much needed change inside of the Fulton County Jail," Crump and Harper said in a separate, joint statement. “It is our prayer that the DOJ confirms the clear pattern of negligence and abuse that happens in Fulton County and swiftly ends it so that no other family experiences this devastation.”

The Southern Center for Human Rights, which has successfully sued the county multiple times over jail conditions and had written to Clarke in April urging an investigation, applauded Thursday’s announcement.

“This is a significant step toward a reckoning for the lives tragically and senselessly lost, and for the many people who continue to suffer rampant indignity and abuse in Fulton jails,” the nonprofit law firm's executive director Terrica Ganzy said in a statement.

The Southern Center has criticized Labat's calls for a new jail, saying it will not fix the problems. In the April letter, the organization said Labat has demonstrated a “clear inability to remedy the conditions of people currently in his care” and that human rights violations at the jail are “the result of a staff culture of cruelty and violence.”

The announcement of the investigation comes just two days after a 19-year-old woman died in her cell while in Fulton County custody. Noni Battiste-Kosoko was being held in a part of the Atlanta city jail that is controlled by the Fulton County sheriff's office when she was found unresponsive in her cell Tuesday and was pronounced dead by medical personnel, the sheriff's office said in a news release. She was alone in her cell and had no obvious signs of injury, the release said.

Clarke called the level of violence in Fulton's jails “deeply concerning,” saying that “at one point in 2022, the jails averaged more than one stabbing per day.” Jail officers recently found more than 200 weapons in the main jail and the sheriff said people are “crafting shanks from the crumbling walls” of the building, she said. There were three suspected homicides at the main jail last year, she said.

Clarke was joined for the announcement by U.S. Attorney Ryan Buchanan, who oversees the northern district of Georgia.

“This investigation will be independent, thorough and fair,” Buchanan said. “We look forward to working cooperatively with the Fulton County sheriff and Fulton County to move the investigation along as quickly as possible.”

Labat said he reached out to the Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections in September to request a security audit and assistance. The institute recently “committed to make a full operational, programmatic and architectural assessment to address and mitigate these critical issues within the next 30 days,” he said.

A Justice Department civil rights investigation into Georgia's state prisons that was launched in September 2021 remains ongoing.