Disability advocacy group sues Fulton County over access to inmates

Photo credit: Channel 2 Action News

Photo credit: Channel 2 Action News

An advocacy group for people with psychiatric disabilities is suing the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, saying it was improperly denied access to mentally ill inmates at a south Fulton jail.

On Friday, the Georgia Advocacy Office asked to see mentally ill women held at the jail’s annex in Union City to follow up on recent reports that contended the women were living in “barbaric” conditions and being held in isolation for weeks at a time. But, despite repeated requests, the office’s lawyers were not allowed inside by jail officials, said the lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

The Georgia Advocacy Office was designated in 1977 as the system that protects the legal and human rights of people with disabilities. Under federal law, the office has the authority to investigate and monitor conditions where disabled people are being held, the lawsuit said.

The advocacy group went to the jail as a followup to a letter sent last year to county officials by the Southern Center for Human Rights, which found mentally ill women inside filthy cells that reeked of feces and where many were not receiving proper medical treatment. Also, many of these women were charged with low-level misdemeanors and were being detained because they could not post bonds of as low as $200.

In September, court and jail officials pledged to improve conditions for the women inmates. In a statement, State Court Chief Judge Diane Bessen said she was unaware of the conditions and noted "the jail is never the best place to keep the mentally ill."

Last week, Georgia Advocacy Office lawyers sought to check out the conditions. But after arriving at the jail early Friday afternoon, an advocacy office lawyer was told she could not enter the jail without approval from chief jailer Mark Adger, the lawsuit said. But repeated attempts to reach Adger were unsuccessful and the advocacy group was never granted access, the suit said.

“We were there, we physically showed up,” said Devon Orland, the Georgia Advocacy Office’s litigation director. “Our mandate and our right is to gain access to people with disabilities to make sure they’re free of abuse and neglect. Without that access, that right is pretty meaningless.”

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In a statement, the Sheriff’s Office said the advocacy office came to the jail annex “for an unannounced, unescorted visit.” Because the jail is a secure location, at least an hour’s notice before a visit is more appropriate, the statement said.

“Jail staff will grant access to members with proper credentials who will be accompanied by a deputy for their safety,” the statement said. “Reasonable accommodations can be made to allow representatives to speak with an inmate outside the presence of a staff member, if necessary, within security guidelines.”

It added that the jail’s administrator is “open to meeting with the group as we share the mission of providing the best care to inmates.”

On Wednesday, the county contacted the advocacy office about the lawsuit, but the lawsuit is still moving forward, Orland said.

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In its August letter to Fulton officials, Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Sarah Geraghty said she hoped the “unconstitutional” treatment of the women inmates could be addressed without a lawsuit having to be filed.

On Wednesday, Geraghty said she continues to be concerned about the conditions at the south Fulton jail, including the long-term confinement of women in its mental health unit.

“Also the jail continues to hold many women incarcerated pretrial for the pettiest offenses on small bond amounts,” Geraghty said. “These women would be free if they could afford bail in the amount of a few hundred dollars.”