Fulton taking steps to improve ‘barbaric’ conditions at jail

South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City. (AJC File Photo)

South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City. (AJC File Photo)

Court and jail officials are taking steps to improve what have been described as "barbaric" conditions for mentally ill women inmates held at a south Fulton County jail, one of the county's top judges said.

The Sheriff’s Office is providing extra correctional officers to work with the women prisoners, and the jail’s healthcare provider is doubling its visits to the jail and educating guards on how to properly interact with the women, Fulton State Court Chief Judge Diane Bessen said.

Bessen outlined what the county is doing in a recent letter to Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Sarah Geraghty. Last month, Geraghty disclosed to county officials that many mentally ill women at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail were living in squalor and being held in isolation for weeks at a time.

During visits to the jail this year, Geraghty found women inside filthy cells that reeked of feces and most were not receiving proper medical treatment. Many of the women were charged with low-level misdemeanor offenses and couldn't get out of jail because they couldn't post the $200 to $500 bond required for bail.

In 2004, the Southern Center represented an inmate whose lawsuit alleging overcrowded and unsafe conditions at the Fulton jail led to a consent decree being signed by a federal judge who ordered sweeping — and costly — improvements. In her letter, Geraghty told county officials that she hoped what she called unconstitutional treatment of the women inmates could be addressed without a lawsuit having to be filed.

Fulton County State Court Chief Judge Diane Bessen. (Handout)

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Bessen replied: “I was unaware of the existing conditions and appreciate you bringing them to our attention. Your letter correctly stated that resources are limited and jail is never the best place to keep the mentally ill.”

Jail officials are confident the conditions are being addressed, and they have extended an invitation to Geraghty to pay another visit to the jail, the judge said.

In an interview, Geraghty said she had been there again last week.

“I don’t agree the conditions are where they need to be,” she said. “Women are still being kept in their cells around the clock for long periods of time.”?

Also, too many inmates are continuing to get lost in the system, Geraghty said.

She cited one woman who was arrested July 19 in East Point for failing to pay a motel bill. She was transferred to the Fulton jail a week after her arrest, but it does not appear she has been to court since then, Geraghty said.

Southern Center for Human Rights lawyer Sarah Geraghty. (Handout)

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“I’m pleased about the representations Judge Bessen made in her letter,” Geraghty said. “But we’re not there yet.”

The jail, located in Union City, houses pretrial detainees. It has three wings for about 40 mentally ill women, most of whom reside in a single cell.

In an Aug. 17 letter to county officials, Geraghty said many of the women were being held in isolation for weeks at a time and on any given day a visitor to the jail is likely to see women who are “incoherent, delusional and filthy from weeks without bathing.”

In response, Bessen said she has issued an order requiring a mental health professional to evaluate inmates within 24 hours of being sent to the jail by any of the county’s 15 municipalities.

She is also reviewing, on a daily basis, cases where inmates arrive at the jail with bonds they can't afford. She is recommending that some of them be released on a signature bond or have their cases put on a court calendar so they can be quickly disposed of. (In February, the city of Atlanta eliminated cash bond requirements for some low-level offenders.)

Solving another problem may not be so easy, Bessen said.

Some mentally ill women inmates found incompetent to stand trial often languish in the jail for months waiting to be transferred once a bed opens up at a state mental health facility. The county will ask the state to make more beds available but “this is a financial consideration beyond our control,” she said.

At the same time, the jail will establish a “competency restoration” facility for these women, similar to one already in place for male inmates. Healthcare providers at the facility could help the women become competent to stand trial, such as getting them to take the medications they need.

“Releasing these inmates without treatment simply means they will be re-arrested within a short period of time,” Bessen wrote.