U.S. DOJ to probe Fulton County Jail after death of mentally ill inmate

More than 60 Fulton inmates died between 2009 and October 2022.
The U.S. Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation of conditions in the Fulton County Jail, citing the Sept. 13 death of a homeless and mentally ill man in the lockup’s psychiatric wing. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

The U.S. Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation of conditions in the Fulton County Jail, citing the Sept. 13 death of a homeless and mentally ill man in the lockup’s psychiatric wing. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

The U.S. Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation of conditions in the Fulton County Jail, citing the Sept. 13 death of a homeless and mentally ill man in the lockup’s psychiatric wing.

DOJ officials added Thursday they had found credible allegations that the jail is “structurally unsafe, that prevalent violence has resulted in serious injuries and homicides, and that officers are being prosecuted for using excessive force.”

Their investigation will also focus on medical and mental health care in the jail as well whether the Fulton Sheriff’s Office is discriminating against people with psychiatric disabilities.

DOJ’s Civil Rights Division is conducting the probe with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Georgia’s Northern District under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons and Americans with Disabilities acts.

“People in prisons and jails are entitled to basic protections of their civil rights,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “We launched this investigation into the Fulton County Jail based on serious allegations of unsafe, unsanitary living conditions at the jail, excessive force and violence within the jail, discrimination against incarcerated individuals with mental health issues, and failure to provide adequate medical care to incarcerated individuals.”

Fulton Sheriff’s Office and county government officials jointly issued a statement Thursday, saying they would cooperate fully with the investigation.

The county’s Rice Street jail has capacity for 2,688 inmates but was holding 3,221 in April, according to Georgia Department of Community Affairs records. Of those, 2,944 were awaiting trial.

The jail has drawn national media attention since the death of Lashawn Thompson, whose body was found covered with insects in the jail’s psychiatric wing last year. His family has called for his death to be investigated and for Fulton’s jail to be closed.

Thompson’s cause of death was undetermined, according to a Fulton County Medical Examiner report, which noted a severe insect infestation in the jail. He wound up in the jail after Georgia Tech police encountered him sleeping in a park outside a childcare center in Midtown in June 2022. Officers found a warrant from Dothan, Alabama, on a 2017 car theft charge. Georgia Tech police also charged Thompson with simple battery for allegedly spitting on one of them.

His privately funded autopsy cites “complications due to severe neglect.” Thompson lost 32 pounds during his three months in the jail and he was not given medication for his schizophrenia, according to the autopsy, funded by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s organization, Know Your Rights Camp. The autopsy also says Thompson was covered in lice that could have caused him to suffer from anemia.

His relatives were encouraged by DOJ’s decision, said Michael Harper, one of his family’s attorneys.

“We believe the death of Lashawn Thompson was a result of criminal neglect,” Harper said. “We hope those responsible for his death are charged.”

Thompson was among more than 60 Fulton inmates who died between 2009 and October 2022, the highest total for any jail in Georgia during that time, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation.

In March, the company that provides health care for the jail’s inmates warned that its staff had been assaulted, a patient had been stabbed and that Fulton’s lockup was the most dangerous of the more than 70 jails it services nationwide. Birmingham-based NaphCare later told the Fulton Sheriff’s Office that conditions had worsened and that it would end its $27 million contract with the county on May 31, seven months early.

Labat responded with a letter on April 1, highlighting the installation of surveillance cameras, “full body scanners” and X-ray machines in the jail. Those steps, he said, have thwarted numerous attempts to bring contraband behind bars and have resulted in the arrest of two NaphCare “employees/contractors.”

A woman who worked as a contract medical assistant in the Fulton jail for about a month was arrested in January after she allegedly attempted to smuggle in marijuana and tobacco, records show. Another woman was arrested April 21 and charged with crossing guard lines with prohibited items. Her arrest report and court records, which also allege tobacco-related offenses, don’t identify the role she held in the jail.

Last month, Labat’s office announced one of its jailers had been charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault and cruelty to an inmate. Detention officer Demarcus Whatley, 25, was also charged with violating his oath of office and reckless conduct and was fired.

Fulton commissioners ultimately approved a $4.8 million contract amendment with NaphCare to keep the company in place as the jail’s health care provider through the end of the year.

Labat release a statement Thursday evening, saying he had met with DOJ officials and that he welcomed their investigation. He also highlighted a request he sent in September to the federal National Institute of Corrections for “a security audit, technical assistance and support surrounding the circumstances at the jail.”

“I have publicly, privately, and repeatedly raised concerns about the dangerous overcrowding, dilapidated infrastructure and critical staffing shortages at the jail,” he said. “The best possible outcome of the report from the Department of Justice is that it will confirm the findings of the Jail Feasibility Study completed in March of 2023 — that the Rice Street Jail is not viable and a replacement jail is needed. In addition, solutions will be identified and implemented with the support of the Board of Commissioners that guarantee humane care and detention of inmates and provide safety assurances for all who live and work in our facilities.”

He added: “Despite the difficult circumstances, we will continue to work collaboratively with our partners to ensure the health and safety of all the women and men remanded to our care.”

About Our Reporting

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporting has exposed record numbers of deaths in Georgia’s largest jails, using medical examiner reports, death certificates and other documents. The newspaper’s reporting prompted a state audit, uncovering more than 100 deaths in the state’s jails that were not reported to the U.S. Justice Department as required by law.