Fulton County jail to get $5.3M for upgrades following inmate’s death

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat and county commissioners speak to media April 19, 2023, after the county approves $5.4 million for emergency improvements at the jail.

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat and county commissioners speak to media April 19, 2023, after the county approves $5.4 million for emergency improvements at the jail.

The troubled Fulton County jail is getting close to $5.4 million for inmate health tracking, cameras and other upgrades in the wake of a lawsuit by the family of an inmate who died “covered in bedbugs” in the jail’s mental health unit last September.

County commissioners voted for the funding Wednesday at the request of Sheriff Patrick Labat.

Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman moved to spend the money as an “emergency response,” drawing from a list of requests Labat handed commissioners that afternoon, during his presentation on the response to the Sept. 13 death of Thompson.

County Chief Financial Officer Sharon Whitmore said the funding could come from $16 million the county has set aside to run special elections, of which there is only one so far this year. If that fund isn’t used, county staff can hunt for piecemeal funding from other areas, she said.

On Sept. 13, Lashawn Thompson, a 35-year-old man, died in one of the jail’s mental health cells after being held for three months on a misdemeanor charge. His family alleges in a lawsuit that he died covered in bedbugs and that jail staff ignored his deteriorating health.

Labat said Thompson’s court date had been rescheduled “eight or nine times.”

Thompson was one of 64 inmates who died in the Fulton jail between 2009 and October 2022, the most of any Georgia jail during that time.

When there is a death in the jail, the sheriff’s office calls in a third-party investigator — the Atlanta Police Department or Georgia Bureau of Investigation — while also conducting its own inquiry, Labat said. Investigations of Thompson’s death are still open, he said.

“It’s not unusual for a death-in-custody case to take a year,” Labat said.

Persistent problems

The jail at 901 Rice St. was designed to hold 1,125 inmates. It was considered obsolete upon its 1989 opening, and has been overcrowded for decades. Occupancy passed 3,000 during the pandemic.

Consultants have recommended building a new jail with double the capacity, but the proposed price tag is $2 billion, and would force several county functions to move from their sites near the current jail.

Labat, in office for just over 27 months, acknowledged the jail has not done a good job in caring for inmates for years.

“If we don’t do something, people will continue to die in Fulton County Jail,” Labat said.

Commissioners expressed condolences to Thompson’s family but said they wouldn’t criticize the sheriff’s actions, focusing instead on preventing similar deaths from happening again in the county jail.

This week, immediately after Thompson’s family filed a lawsuit over his death, Labat asked for and received the resignations of three top jail staff.

Abdur-Rahman asked for Labat’s response to multiple recent cases in which jail deputies have been fired, and often arrested, for bringing food and other contraband into the jail, inappropriate contact with inmates and other charges.

“I would tell you we’re getting it right,” Labat said, noting that those deputies had been caught and charged along with accomplices outside the jail.

Request details

Labat’s memo to commissioners details his requests, not all of which were approved Wednesday.

The sheriff wants to put GPS wristbands that monitor heart rate and blood pressure on all inmates. That health data can be integrated with jail cameras, enabling deputies to respond faster to illness, Labat said.

Commissioners also endorsed funding for mail scanners to detect chemical residue on paper. Inmates are receiving supposed legal documents soaked with drugs, or even bug spray, he said. They then smoke the paper, allowing many to get “massively high” — and creating medical crises, Labat said.

Two deep cleanings of the medical and mental health units were done following Thompson’s death, he said.

“Those two did not work as intended,” he said, and the jail has been doing more regular sanitizing since December. But so long as hundreds of inmates have to sleep packed on the floor in foam “boats,” the jail will remain a “breeding ground” for vermin and disease, Labat said.

Labat’s request totaled almost $8.4 million — plus an “undetermined” amount for a new medical contractor, after its current one said it would terminate its contract effective May 31.

Only a few providers can handle the care needed at such a large facility, Labat said. But he had already been searching for a new contractor and should be ready to provide continuous care by the time the current provider leaves, he said.

In a related item, on Wednesday commissioners approved more work for the consultants who did the feasibility study calling for the new jail. STV Architects Inc. and TreanorHL Inc. will get $869,893 to design the new facility, keeping it on track for completion by the end of 2028.

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