EXCLUSIVE: Justice Department concerned about conditions at South Fulton jail

Lawsuit claims mentally ill women held in horrific conditions

In a court filing on Thursday, U.S. Attorney BJay Pak and lawyers from the civil rights division in Washington alerted a federal judge in Atlanta to recent Justice Department positions concerning the constitutional requirements for housing prisoners with serious mental illness.

The motion — called a "statement of interest" — was filed in a case that demands improved conditions at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City. The suit, filed in April, said mentally ill women are being held in isolation under horrific conditions that increase their risk of serious psychological harm.

It was filed on behalf of two women, identified as M.J. and K.H., and the Georgia Advocacy Office, which protects the rights of people with disabilities.

The Justice Department’s filing alerted U.S. District Court Judge Billy Ray to the civil rights division’s lengthy investigation of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Va. That probe, concluded in December, found the jail failed to provide adequate medical and mental health care to inmates and that prisoners were unconstitutionally held in restrictive conditions for prolonged periods of time.

Atlanta lawyer Joe Whitley, a former U.S. attorney here, called the Justice Department’s entry into the Atlanta case a potentially significant development.

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

“This is not something they ordinarily would do,” Whitley said. “Apparently they’ve seen things that caused them concern. The role of the civil rights division and the Department of Justice is often necessary to assure that people who are confined are treated in a manner consistent with the Constitution.”

Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights, welcomed the Justice Department’s interest in the case.

“The fact that it chose to weigh in shows the gravity of the human rights violations at issue,” said Geraghty, who represents the female inmates. “The conditions being challenged in this case are strikingly similar to those found to violate federal law at the Hampton Roads jail.”

Some of the mentally ill women at the Union City jail have been found incompetent to stand trial for their alleged offenses. M.J., for example, was arrested in October for criminal trespass while proselytizing at The Mall West End. The 20-year-old woman has been unable to post $500 bond.

The lawsuit against the Union City jail included graphic photos of unsanitary jail cells and detailed grim conditions for the women detainees. The conditions “can result in dramatic worsening of symptoms, decompensation, psychosis, self-mutilation and suicide,” the suit said.

In recent court filings, Fulton County attorneys say plaintiffs M.J. and K.H. and other inmates “present unique security concerns as a result of their psychiatric disabilities.”

“(Their) disruptive, if not violent, behavior and their significant hygiene concerns dictate that their time outside their cells must be limited,” the county said. “The penological interests of safety and security for M.J. and K.H. and their fellow inmates, the staff and the general public who visit the jail dictate the amount of time inmates spend in their cells.”

The county has asked Ray to dismiss the lawsuit and to deny an injunction sought by the plaintiffs’ lawyers that says the women inmates should be allowed to spend four hours a day outside their cells, including one hour of outdoor time.

In a recent court filing, the plaintiffs’ lawyers included a sworn statement by their forensic psychiatry expert, Jeffrey Metzner, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

The south Fulton Jail’s so-called mental health pods are essentially solitary confinement units that warehouse the female detainees, he said. “Such warehousing, in conditions of confinement that include very little out-of-cell time, results in many of these detainees’ mental illnesses either deteriorating or not improving despite such illnesses being very treatable in an appropriate setting.”