Human rights group asks judge to hold Fulton County in contempt

Despite eight years and $150 million in taxpayer money, the Fulton County Jail is still crowded, dangerous and short on staff, according to a human rights group that asked a federal judge on Thursday to hold Fulton’s sheriff in contempt.

“They have had eight years to come into compliance, and over the past year, it seems conditions have deteriorated,” said Melanie Velez, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “It’s time for them to comply.”

According to the Southern Center, inmates roam freely within the cell blocks because the locks on doors don’t work, and inmates sleep on the floors in common areas because there aren’t enough beds. As many as 225 men were sleeping on floors as recent as Sunday. The center said there were more inmates than beds in the jail on 50 of the 62 days of July and August.

The Southern Center, which brought a 2004 suit on behalf of inmates that led to a consent decree, asked senior U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Shoob to hold a hearing to determine if the county and Sheriff Ted Jackson are in contempt. It also asked the judge to impose daily fines if he finds the agreement has been violated.

But Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said the complaints raised by the Southern Center are unfair.

“The county has done almost everything that it can do. We are making progress,” Eaves said.

The replacement of 1,400 locks — at a cost of $4.8 million — is expected to take until next spring.

“We are on the brink of complying with all the areas (of the consent order),” Eaves said. “The moneys have been earmarked (for new locks). The installation has begun. The current overcrowding … is a product of that installation process.”

Still, Velez said, “The safety of anyone who lives or works in that environment is in jeopardy.”

In documents filed with the Southern Center’s motion, inmate Michael Veal wrote he was cut on the arm when he came to the aid of a officer when two fighting inmates lunged at her; there were no other officers around.

He also wrote that officers are frequently afraid of being outnumbered. “When an officer is the only one present when an incident takes place, they sometimes just shout to … people to stop fighting. But (they) do not enter the dorm to break it up,” he wrote.

“I can only describe it as a mad house,” one inmate wrote in a statement attached to the court filing.

Inmate Karl Williams wrote that cigarettes, cellphones and marijuana, all banned items that are sometimes at the root of inmate fights, can be found in almost every cell block because cells are rarely — if ever — searched.

“I fear for my safety,” Williams wrote.

So far, the jail lawsuit has cost taxpayers about $150 million to renovate the Rice Street jail, house Fulton inmates in other jails to keep the population below 2,500 and begin installing new locks. There also has been the cost of paying overtime to detention officers so critical posts will be be staffed.

Earlier this year, the county commission cut all money for renting beds at several jails throughout the state, claiming that the additional space was no longer needed because the jail was consistently below the population cap.

Col. Mark Adger, who runs the jail, warned of the consequences if he no longer had anywhere to put inmates forced to leave their cells while new locks were being installed. Adger did not respond to email or telephone messages seeking comment on Thursday.

In August, commissioners voted to pay to rent beds in one jail — Union City — for $111,750 a month to use at least 285 of 325 beds in its jail, which is now where all the female inmates are housed.

Leading up the Southern Center’s filing on Thursday were a series of letters exchanged between the inmates’ lawyers and attorneys for the county and the sheriff’s office that showed a shifting of blame. The county also wrote in monthly reports to the judge that the county was not creating the problem.

But the sheriff’s office attorney wrote in a letter to the Southern Center that sheriff’s office cannot rent beds to lessen the pressure on the jail if the commissioners don’t appropriate the funds. The sheriff’s office’s attorney also complained that the county’s process made it almost impossible to fill vacant positions, making staffing more of a problem.

“The staffing is not a product of lack of funding,” Eaves responded. “It’s a product of the sheriff’s office not being able to fill the positions because of the attrition of officers. …That is natural.”