Four arrested during protest outside DeKalb jail

A protest of conditions at the DeKalb County jail turned violent Wednesday evening, leading to four arrests and renewed calls for improvements at the aging facility.

The four who were arrested were all charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing highways, streets, sidewalks or other public passages, the sheriff’s office said in a news release. The charges are misdemeanors that carry penalties of up to 12 months in jail and fines as high as $1,000.

All four are scheduled for court hearings on Friday.

DeKalb Sheriff Jeffrey Mann criticized the demonstration, saying protesters had good intentions but were misinformed about conditions and policies at the jail.

“We would really like them to learn the facts about how we fulfill our constitutional mandate to serve the public safety needs of this community and those of the more than 1,800 individuals currently in our custody,” he said in statement.

Since April, protests have been led at the jail by the Atlanta chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, an inmate-rights group. They say they have heard from inmates who complained of moldy living quarters and abusive treatment from corrections officers, including through their family members’ posts on social media.

A protest of conditions at the DeKalb County jail turned violent on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, after demonstrators refused to stop blocking traffic on Memorial Drive. Four people were arrested after they refused to move to the sidewalk. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM

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Wednesday’s protest started with a march from the Kensington MARTA station to the jail.

Police shut down a portion of Memorial Drive to allow about 100 protesters to make the short walk, but officers grew impatient as the demonstration continued to block the road after a half-hour.

Around that time, about 50 of DeKalb Sheriff’s officers showed up carrying plastic handcuffs and wooden batons. Before getting in formation near the protest, the officers relinquished the batons.

Around 7:30 p.m., the Sheriff’s Office made a final warning that anyone who continued to demonstrate in the street would face arrest. Several people refused to move.

Law enforcement officers moved in and forced several protesters to the ground, restraining them in plastic handcuffs and dragging them to a van parked nearby. It appears that a Taser was used on at least one person.

Supporters of the protest say they were peaceful until police moved in with excessive force.

“It was a peaceful protest movement, but it was attacked,” said Estevan Hernandez.

The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to questions about the Taser usage and if anyone required medical attention. Protesters said at least one person was seen bleeding from his head.

Wednesday's melee was the latest in a series of demonstrations about conditions at the jail. A protest in April also resulted in four arrests after people pushed their way inside the jail lobby. The Sheriff's Office said one officer was injured and demonstrators threw firecrackers and smoke bombs.

Although Mann said no human rights abuses happen at the jail, he admits that mold is an issue and said he is working to fix that problem. He offered last week to meet with IWOC representatives, but they declined and said he should hold a forum with current inmates instead.

“It’s not for us to meet with the sheriff, it is for the prisoners to speak for themselves,” Jimmy Raynor, a member of the Workers World Party, said about Mann’s request.

Raynor was among several people who dropped off a petition to the DeKalb County commission on Thursday afternoon asking its members to investigation the jail. The petition, signed by about 300 people, says inmates should have access to better healthcare, education options and living conditions.

After several people were arrested at Wednesday’s protest, it continued without incident for another 90 minutes. Inmates inside the jail could be heard banging on windows to acknowledge the demonstration, and some drivers of cars stuck in traffic because of the street being closed honked their horns in support.

Organizers said they will return to the jail Thursday evening and every night while the four people who were arrested remain in custody.