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Claims of violence, dysfunction plague Atlanta jail under state and federal investigation

A Georgia state Senate subcommittee has launched its own investigation into Fulton County Jail after the U.S. Department of Justice announced a federal investigation earlier this year following the troubling death of an incarcerated person.

The Atlanta jail has come under fire for mounting violence, overcrowding, excessive force and unsanitary conditions. Officials have blamed a lack of resources and each other for the crisis.

New accusations about funds have come to light in recent weeks, as documents revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars intended to improve inmate welfare were spent on such things as Honey Baked Ham Co. gift cards for staff, vehicles, lunches, and jugglers who performed at a community event. Commissioners also rescinded $2.1 million previously allotted for an inmate health initiative.

Georgia lawmakers are looking at jail conditions, funding, management, and the court system, subcommittee Chair Randy Robertson said.

So far this year, there have been nearly 300 stabbings, 68 assaults on staff, more than 1,000 shanks confiscated, four instances of inciting riots, 10 deaths and at least one fire, Amelia Joiner, chief counsel to Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat told the subcommittee in the first hearing this week. Numerous other issues have been documented, including unsanitary conditions, crumbling walls and flooding inside units.

Fulton County Jail has become the epicenter of America’s mass incarceration debate over chronically hazardous conditions and an overreliance on detainment. The United States holds 2 million people in jails and prisons across the country and ranks among the highest worldwide in its dependence on incarceration, according to The Sentencing Project.

“We know what causes safety in humans,” said Emily Galvin-Almanza, co-founder and executive director of Partners for Justice. “If a person has a roof over their head, the ability to put food on the table and access to mental health or substance use care, they are dramatically less likely to commit any kind of crime.”

The Justice Department confirmed to USA TODAY Friday its investigation into Fulton County Jail remains active. The agency noted it has 11 other investigations open into adult jails and prisons across the nation, from New York to California.

Inmate Welfare Fund spent on gift cards, unrelated charges

As receipts pile up – along with questions – experts say officials have failed to address root causes of the jail crisis plaguing metro Atlanta, despite additional funding and program initiatives.

The year before LaShawn Thompson died due to “severe neglect” by jail staff, according to an independent autopsy report, the sheriff’s office had millions of dollars dedicated to an Inmate Welfare Fund. The initiative was intended to “benefit the healthy safety, education, and general welfare of the inmates,” a spokesperson said.

LaShawn Thompson, 35 died at the Fulton County Jail in Georgia after being eaten alive by insects and bed bugs, his family’s attorney told USA TODAY on Thursday. According to a Fulton County Medical Examiner's report, Thompson was found unresponsive in his jail cell Sept. 19, and pronounced dead after failed life-saving attempts by responding local police and fire medical personnel.

However, documents sent to the Board of Commissioners and obtained by USA TODAY showed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fund intended to help incarcerated people went to vehicle purchases, gift cards for staff, conferences, hiring jugglers for a community outreach event, and other unrelated expenses between 2021 and August 2023.

“There are some legitimate purchases, but there are a lot of large expenditures which I don’t think by any means could be justified,” Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Bob Ellis said at a public meeting Wednesday.

He called for an audit and suspension of the fund until policies around spending were established.

A spokesperson for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, Natalie Ammons, told USA TODAY some expenditures had been “assigned to the wrong fund,” noting corrective action has been taken, such as the termination of the financial administrator, termination of contracts not compliant with use of the fund, and procedural changes.

Ammons said the fund had passed yearly audits by a company contracted by the county, and an internal review has been conducted.

Talitrix wristbands

The Inmate Welfare Fund revelations come just two weeks after the Board of Commissioners voted to rescind $2.1 million earlier approved for Talitrix wristbands, which track heartbeat and movement.

Sheriff Labat touted the technology as a way to monitor incarcerated people’s health inside the jails. If a low or high heart rate is detected, jail staff are alerted so the person can be assessed.

Commissioners approved $5.3 million to improve jail conditions in April following the death of Thompson in 2022, more than $2 million of which was allocated for the Talitrix technology.

“Monitoring an inmate’s biometrics adds to the safety and well-being of the inmate,” Ammons told USA TODAY.

Delays in rolling out the technology prompted the Board of Commissioners to rescind the funding for 1,000 wristbands, related hardware, and installation approved in April and question where the money was going. As of Friday, Ammons said 41 wristbands were in use between two facilities.

Vice Chair Ellis also raised concerns about Talitrix and related entities making political contributions to the sheriff totaling about $78,100, which were not disclosed to commissioners in April, as well as previous contracts between Talitrix and Labat dating back to September 2021.

Talitrix did not respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment.

Ashley Payne, southern regional program director at Partners for Justice, told USA TODAY funds used for programs like Talitrix would be better spent on public defenders and social services, noting an opportunity cost as well as privacy concerns about wristband data.

“Technology cannot fix an unjust system built to punish, and it can never give incarcerated people the humane treatment that is their right,” Payne said.

When a lockup becomes a death sentence

Ten people in Fulton County Jail’s custody have died so far this year. Thompson was held for three months in the jail’s psychiatric wing and was covered in bedbugs, dehydrated and malnourished. He was found unresponsive in his cell on Sept. 19, 2022 and later pronounced dead, according to a medical examiner’s report.

“These people have not been found guilty,” said Michael Collins, senior director of state and local government affairs at Color Of Change. “Often they’re being given the death penalty because of the nature of this facility.”

Unlike prisons, jails were largely intended as a short-term facility to detain people to and through trial, and for people convicted serving short sentences. That means the majority of people in jails are “legally innocent,” Galvin-Almanza said.

Reuters documented 7,571 deaths in more than 500 U.S. jails from 2008 to 2019, noting death rates soared over that timeframe. At least 4,998 people who died were never convicted of the charges on which they were being held, the report said, meaning they were legally innocent.

Most died from illness. More than 2,000 people took their own lives amid mental breakdowns, including about 1,500 awaiting trial or indictment. More than 1 in 10 died from acute effects of drugs and alcohol. Nearly 300 died after sitting behind bars without a conviction for a year or more.

People spend months in jail before their day in court

While former President Donald Trump only spent about 20 minutes at Fulton County Jail, hundreds are held for months before their day in court.

Some have accused the District Attorney’s Office and judicial system of not processing cases fast enough, leading to longer detainments at the jail. However, Jeff DiSantis, a spokesperson for the Fulton County District Attorney’s office refuted claims there has been a slowness to indict, noting the addition of a second grand jury and a large inheritance of unindicted, pending felony cases from the previous district attorney.

DiSantis said indictments required a collection of evidence, including from the state crime lab, which has been understaffed, he added.

“It’s not a minor matter to have a felony indictment hanging over your head,” DiSantis told USA TODAY.

According to a Fulton County report, the average length of detainment in September was 62 days, more than double its goal of 30 days.

In 2020, the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated the average time in jail was nearly 28 days, a rise from about 21 days in 2010.

Another study by the Data Collaborative for Justice that looked at jails across three counties also reported lengthier stays over the years. Researchers said those admitted to the three county jails for a violent felony charge spent more than 100 days in jail on average.

Longer jail time reports were primarily driven by people whose bail was set at more than $5,000. A report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last year 60% of people awaiting trial remain in jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail.

What is the cash bail system?

Much of the country’s criminal justice system relies on cash bail. However, criminal justice advocates have long been critical of the system.

A person arrested and placed in jail must pay an amount of cash bail determined by a judge to be released pending trial, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That money is used to guarantee people will return for hearings and is returned after all necessary court appearances. If the person does not appear, the money is forfeited to the government.

In cases where a judge is afraid a person will not return for hearings, or there are concerns of violence, they will not offer bail, and the person arrested is forced to stay in jail until and through court proceedings.

If a judge sets bail, and a person cannot pay the amount, they are required to stay in jail, even though they don’t meet criteria as a security or flight risk. People may be able to request the bail amount be lowered, or they can try to use a private bail bond company.

“You get many people who are held in jail only because they are too poor to buy their own freedom,” Galvin-Almanza said.

Earlier this year, Illinois became the first state to end cash bail. The move was part of a criminal justice overhaul adopted in 2021 known as the SAFE-T Act, a measure adopted after the murder of George Floyd and other instances of police violence. In July, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s opinion that a provision in the act doing away with cash bail violated the state constitution’s requirement that “all persons shall be bailable by sufficient sureties.”

Solutions outside a jail cell

According to a Vera Institute of Justice survey of 35 jails across the country, the annual cost to incarcerate one person averaged $47,057. The study also found the cost of jails nationwide grew four-fold between 1983 and 2011, from $5.7 billion to $22.2 billion. It also found more than 20% of jail costs were outside the jail budget in nearly a quarter of surveyed jurisdictions.

But experts say the true fix has been in front all along – decarceration – or policies and programs aimed at reducing the number of people detained.

The American Civil Liberties Union published an analysis last year that determined of the 2,892 people held at Fulton County Jail on one September day, 728 people, or about 25% could have been released if the county stopped detaining people because they couldn’t afford bond, released most people charged with misdemeanors, indicted people within 90 days per Georgia law, and sent more eligible people to diversion programs.

Galvin-Almanza said a significant portion of people sent to jails are facing solvable problems, such as poverty, substance use disorders, and mental health issues. Investing in resources that ensure people’s security of housing, food, community support, and other basic needs would play a massive role in resolving the mounting overcrowding crisis, she noted.

“In the U.S., we just put vastly too many people in jail,” Galvin-Almanza said. “The primary driver of this is the fact that we use our law enforcement and criminal court system to deal with all manner of social ills instead of providing more appropriate resources.”

In 2021, the U.S. jail population increased by 16% from the previous year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and 71% of people held in jail were not convicted.

But the agency reported a spike in the use of jail alternatives. The number of people supervised by jails through various programs, including electronic monitoring, house arrest, community service, substance use treatment, and work programs went up by 31% from 2020 to 2021.

Diversion programs represented a minority of people in the jail system, as 50,800 were in alternative programs, while 636,300 others were held in jails.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fulton County Jail under state and federal investigation