Man who died in Fulton Jail pleaded for an end to violence, neglect

In a lawsuit just days before his death, Samuel Lawrence said he was starving, thirsty and feared for his life.
Views of the exterior of Fulton County Jail shown on March 30, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Views of the exterior of Fulton County Jail shown on March 30, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

After spending the past seven months in the Fulton County Jail, Samuel Lawrence seemed to understand the rhythms of violence and neglect. Lawrence received regular beatings, from inmates and guards alike, and was denied access to food and medical treatment, according to a recent federal lawsuit.

At times, he was suicidal.

“I don’t know how much more I can take,” Lawrence, 34, wrote in his Aug. 22 complaint. “I’m starving, I’m thirsty.”

On Saturday, Lawrence was found unresponsive in his cell during dinner rounds, according to the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office. He was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead. He was one of five people to die in the jail in August.

Days before he died, Lawrence filed his civil rights complaint against the Fulton jail, its deputies and other staff. The document, containing roughly a dozen handwritten pages, catalogued the destitute conditions Lawrence said he faced in jail. He wrote from an isolation cell where he said he slept on the “hard metal floor” and was without water or a working toilet.

“I would like to file a temporary restraining order and request a transfer due to ongoing physical torture, brutality from guards and inmates, neglect,” Lawrence wrote.

The troubling allegations and jail conditions outlined in Lawrence’s lawsuit juxtaposed with his untimely death in custody adds a new dimension to the questions swirling around Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat’s management of the troubled local jail. On Thursday, one detainee was killed and two were injured in a series of stabbings in the Fulton jail, the ninth inmate to die in the custody of the sheriff’s office this year.

Labat’s office hasn’t directly answered questions about the allegations in Lawrence’s lawsuit or his death.

“We cannot comment on pending litigation,” said Natalie Ammons, a spokesperson in Labat’s office. “In addition, it is an active investigation.

Lawrence was first arrested the day after Christmas for 2nd Degree Arson, jail records show. But more than 200 days later, he had still not been formally charged. His bond was $30,000, and he was scheduled for a bond reduction hearing in less than a month.

In his federal complaint, Lawrence described an atmosphere of violence met with, at minimum, ambivalence from the jail staff.

He was often targeted by other inmates, he said, and guards did little to protect him. He recounted an episode in May where a guard watched as another inmate chased Lawrence around his dorm and beat him, leaving him with bruised ribs. In an incident earlier this month, Lawrence wrote that guards failed to protect him when inmates forced him to fight. One inmate choked him, another bit his hand and chest “like an animal,” he said.

Often, he refused to go back to his cell out of fear of other inmates. Guards would resort to violence to force him to comply, he said. He wrote that, in June, Fulton deputies “used excessive force by kicking me in the head, stomping my hands while in handcuffs and wrongfully pepper spraying,” when he refused to go back to his dorm where he had been extorted by other inmates with a shank in a previous incident.

He said he was frequently denied medical assistance, and the neglect and abuse worsened his mental health disorders. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was unable to independently verify the allegations in Lawrence’s complaint.

The Atlanta Police Department is investigating his death, and the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office is performing an autopsy to determine the cause and manner of death.

Still, the violence and conditions described in Lawrence’s complaint echo past allegations about conditions at the jail on Rice Street.

More than 60 Fulton inmates died between 2009 and 2022, the highest total for any jail in Georgia during that time, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

In July, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation into the jail after the death of inmate Lashawn Thompson, whose body was found in the psychiatric wing last September covered in insects and riddled with bedbug bites. His family was awarded a $4 million settlement from Fulton County this month.

The DOJ said the investigation will look into whether the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office “discriminate against persons with psychiatric disabilities inside the jail.”

Lawrence’s mental state at the time of his death is unclear, but court records show that Lawrence was enrolled in a Gwinnett County drug court program after he was charged with a separate felony in 2022.

The county’s accountability court, first set up by former Gov. Nathan Deal, aims to keep people suffering from mental illness and drug abuse out of jail, opting to place them in treatment programs. But Lawrence’s Fulton arrest prevented him from getting treatment in Gwinnett, said attorney Rachael Groffsky, who represented Lawrence before the accountability court.

To participate in the Gwinnett program, Lawrence had to bond out of the Fulton jail or resolve his Fulton case, she said. Neither option appeared feasible at the time of his death.

He had been arrested for arson in December and Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis’ office had yet to indict him. His bond was set at $30,000, but he was scheduled for a bond reduction hearing in September, court records show.

Groffsky said she was heartbroken when she learned of Lawrence’s death over the weekend.

“He was a pleasure to deal with,” Groffsky said. “He was very invested in his life and himself and, what I considered, doing better and getting better.”

The Fulton Jail has been plagued by overcrowding for years. It has a bed capacity of 2,591, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report last year. The ACLU found of the nearly 3,000 people incarcerated in September 2022, more than 500 people had been detained at least 90 days without being indicted. Among those unindicted detainees, 174 could not afford bail.

Local politicians have looked to address the jail crisis by endorsing construction of a new $1.7 billion jail and transferring 700 inmates to the Atlanta City Detention Center. Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat requested roughly $5 million from the Fulton County Commission for health tracking upgrades in the jail including GPS wristbands and cameras in the wake of Thompson’s death.

But critics say the string of deaths in recent years show the root of the problem does not lie solely within the jail facilities.

Michael Harper, who represented the Thompson family, said staff failed to regularly check on him and provide medical care, even though they knew about his mental health issues.

“I do think we need a new jail, we do need staffing and better training to avoid these horrific deaths from continuing to happen,” Harper said.

Lawrence was one of hundreds of detainees who had not been formally charged with the alleged crime that put them in jail, something that jail critics said prevented these detainees from moving forward toward a resolution. Lawrence was not granted his bond until April, nearly four months after he was booked into the jail, court records show.

A “shiny new facility” would not solve Fulton County’s overcrowding problems, said Fallon McClure, Georgia ACLU’s deputy director of policy, without addressing unaffordable bail and sluggish indictments.

“I feel like we’re continually asking the wrong questions,” McClure said. “The question needs to be: ‘Why are there so many people there?’”