Lawsuit: Conditions horrific for women at south Fulton County jail

Mentally ill women are being held in isolation at a jail in south Fulton County under horrific conditions that increase their risk of serious psychological harm and strip away their human dignity, a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.

The unsanitary and degrading conditions "can result in dramatic worsening of symptoms, decompensation, psychosis, self-mutilation and suicide," the suit said. The women are being denied necessary health care and are kept in "an environment that deprives them of meaningful social interaction and therapeutic activities."

The lawsuit was filed by the Georgia Advocacy Office, which protects the legal and human rights of people with disabilities, and two women being held at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City. The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of all mentally ill women being held under similar conditions.

The two women plaintiffs, identified only as M.J. and K.H., are homeless, have psychiatric disabilities and have been held for at least five months on criminal trespassing charges. Both were unable to post $500 bonds because they couldn’t afford it, the suit said.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights, which warned county officials last summer that it would file a civil rights lawsuit if the "barbaric" conditions at the south Fulton jail were not addressed and improved.

“It is unacceptable in our modern era to isolate anyone with a psychiatric disability in prolonged solitary confinement,” said Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Sarah Geraghty, who represents the plaintiffs. “But to keep women charged with low-level misdemeanors in these wretched conditions for months on end is particularly pointless and cruel.”

The suit was filed against Fulton Sheriff Ted Jackson, chief jailer Mark Adger, medical director Meredieth Lightbourne and other detention officials.

Fulton sheriff’s spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said her office had no formal response because it has yet to receive a copy of the complaint. She added, “We’ve been transparent and we’ve been working with the parties to make improvements.”

In past statements, representatives on both sides of the litigation have acknowledged that some of the mentally ill women inmates are difficult to manage in a jail setting.

More activists are taking notice of the issue. On Wednesday, protesters interrupted the Fulton County Commission meeting to urge the county to close the South Fulton jail.

About a dozen members of the group Southerners on New Ground brought recordings of interviews they had made with women held at the jail and played part of one during the meeting. They chanted, “Mama, Mama, can’t you see what the system’s doing to me,” as they marched toward the front of the auditorium.

“Women are sitting there who haven’t seen a judge in a year,” said Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners on New Ground. “It’s urgent.”

The Georgia Advocacy Office lawsuit includes graphic photos and details unimaginable conditions for the women detainees.

Some women were found lying on their floors with feces or food smeared over their bodies, the suit said. Many of the women were unresponsive, and some communicated by writing messages in feces or food on their cell walls, the suit said.

Pools of urine were found on cell floors, and broken toilets leaked or were overflowing, the suit said. It added that an overwhelming smell of feces, urine and vomit made it difficult for people to breathe.

The photos, taken early this year, show some cells with rusting metal fixtures or mold on the walls. They also include pictures of filthy conditions inside some of the cells, with women sleeping on cold metal bunks without bedding.

The responsibility for overseeing the roughly 200 mentally ill women held at the South Fulton jail is given to overworked and undertrained detention officers, the suit said. Their interactions with the women “amount to nothing more than distributing word puzzles through a tray slot and asking a few cursory questions through a locked door.”

Many of the women at the jail are held for months at a time after having been arrested for nonviolent, low-level offenses. Some are unable to post nominal bonds, while others have been found incompetent to stand trial and are waiting to be admitted to Georgia Regional Hospital-Atlanta or a similar state hospital, the suit said.

People with psychiatric disabilities are particularly vulnerable to enduring greater psychological harm and a more pronounced mental deterioration when kept in isolation, the suit said. It noted that many of the women are held in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, causing them to care little about personal hygiene and to do little else but sleep or stare at the cinder block walls.

The lawsuit seeks a court order demanding that the women be held in safe and sanitary conditions. It says the women should be allowed to get out of their cells at least four hours a day. And it says the jail should provide the women with the same “restoration services” offered to male inmates — with health care providers making sure they are taking the medications they need — so they can be found competent to stand trial and released from custody.

AJC staff writer Arielle Kass contributed to this article.

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