Judge to Fulton: Fix repulsive jail conditions for mentally ill women

Calling the conditions “repulsive,” a federal judge on Tuesday ordered Fulton County to take immediate steps to improve the treatment of mentally ill women being held in a jail annex in Union City.

U.S. District Court Judge Billy Ray issued a preliminary injunction requested by lawyers representing women who have been held for prolonged periods in solitary confinement and in filthy conditions at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail.

Ray announced his decision from the bench after three days of testimony last week and closing arguments this morning. During the hearing, lawyers representing the female inmates presented photos of foul conditions at the jail and statements from women who said their mental conditions worsened because they were not allowed to leave their cells.

“It’s something that’s got to be remedied and remedied immediately,” Ray said.

Lawyers for the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Georgia Advocacy Office had asked Ray to require the roughly 30 to 40 mentally ill women at the jail to be allowed to leave their cells for up to four hours a day at least five days a week. Ray said this must begin within 30 days, with exceptions to those inmates posing "an immediate and substantial risk" of harming someone else.

Ray also ordered the county to present to him within 30 days a plan that ensures an appropriate environment for the female inmates. The plan must include steps that help the women maintain their hygiene, live in a clean and safe environment, and be allowed out-of-cell group activities.

Southern Center lawyer Sarah Geraghty said she was very pleased with Ray’s decision.

“The extreme and extended isolation imposed on women at the jail and the appalling conditions there have long been a recipe for disaster,” she said. “This order is probably going to save someone’s life.”

In a statement, the Sheriff’s Office said it will “continue to cooperate to the letter of the law” and is “fully committed to the care of all persons in custody.” Authorities have been working since April to establish a “stabilization program” to address the inmates’ personal hygiene, sanitation, emotional well-being and other concerns, the office said.

During her closing arguments, Geraghty reminded Ray that she had initially notified the county of problems at the south Fulton jail almost a year ago. Inspections had found cells reeking of feces and vomit, overflowing and leaky toilets, and women inmates with hair matted with fecal matter or their clothes streaked with blood.

The jail’s practice has been to let the women leave their cells for no more than one hour a day, and many don’t venture outside for weeks at a time, Geraghty said. One inmate became so depressed from her isolation she tried to commit suicide, and another engaged in self-harm as a way to get outside her cell, Geraghty said.

One former inmate, allowed to identify herself by her initials S.P., testified last week that she was allowed only two showers and one change of clothes during her four months at the jail. Often breaking down in tears, the 39-year-old woman described how her condition worsened as she was trapped in her cell for weeks at a time with nothing to do. During that time, she said, her own body odor became unbearable and she began to hallucinate.

“It was disgusting,” she testified. “It was completely degrading.”

Geraghty acknowledged the county has begun making plans to try to address the problems. “But the status quo has harmed women and is continuing to harm women,” she told Ray. “We have to do better than this.”

Ashley Palmer of the Fulton County Office of the County Attorney acknowledged that the evidence presented at the hearing “has not placed the Sheriff’s Office in the most favorable light.” Still, she asked Ray not to issue the injunction.

A deputy assigned to the mental health wing in April has been getting women inmates out of their cells, Palmer said. Also, the Sheriff’s Office, with 90 unfilled positions, doesn’t have enough staff to allow women inmates out of their cells for four hours a day, she said.

There are also “combative and disruptive” inmates who are a danger to the staff and to other inmates, Palmer said. Allowing these inmates out-of-cell time cannot compromise the deputies’ ability to maintain safety inside the jail, she said

But Ray noted that the county’s own psychiatric expert had testified that keeping mentally ill women in prolonged isolation could only worsen their conditions. And while the county argues that what has occurred at the jail is acceptable, he said, “all the evidence shows it is not.”

As for arguments of inadequate staffing, Ray said, “Funding is really not my concern today.” There is a “drastic need” to fix the problems, he said.

The judge added that based on what he heard over the course of the hearing, those who are aware of the conditions “really ought to have a hard time sleeping at night.”