Fulton County commissioners Robb Pitts (center) and Marvin Arrington talk to protesters including Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners on New Ground, about conditions at the jail. ARIELLE KASS/AKASS@AJC.COM

Protesters complain to Fulton commission about women’s jail conditions

Protesters interrupted the Fulton County commission meeting Wednesday, asking the county to close the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail due to poor conditions at the facility for women.

About a dozen members with the group Southerners on New Ground brought recordings of interviews that they had made with women held at the jail in Union City and played part of one during the meeting. They chanted, saying, “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, the co-director of Southerners on New Ground. “It’s urgent, sir.”

After being shepherded out of the meeting room, several members of the group that advocates for bail reform and inmates’ rights held signs at windows overlooking the auditorium that reiterated their message.

Outside the meeting, Hooks said she was concerned about conditions at the jail, which houses women awaiting trial and those sentenced to less than a year of confinement in Fulton County. She said there was black mold in the building, a lack of access to public defenders and retaliation against prisoners who were speaking out. Hooks also asked for free phone access for prisoners, and requested that they be allowed outdoors; she said they primarily go outside when they are taken to court.

The Georgia Advocacy Office filed a new federal lawsuit Wednesday saying mentally ill women are being held in conditions that increase the risk for psychological harm.

“People should know what’s been happening in there,” Hooks said.

County Commissioner Robb Pitts told Hooks and others that he would meet with them about their concerns at the end of the meeting; the protesters interrupted a discussion about when items needed to be placed on an agenda in order to be heard by the board.

During a brief conversation with the protesters after the meeting ended, Pitts said he was concerned about what they had shared.

“You have our commitment to get out there as quickly as possible,” he said.

Commissioners Marvin Arrington and Natalie Hall also came to address the protesters after the commission meeting. Hall said there was “no way this board of commissioners is going to allow those conditions to continue,” while Arrington said he was moved by the protest, but limited in what he and others could do. The county commission provides a budget to the sheriff for running the jail, but the sheriff can use the money as he pleases.

“To some extent, our hands are tied,” Arrington said.

Hooks called the issues at the jail “a state of emergency” and said the women there were suffering.

“Something has to give,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

Fulton County had been leasing the jail in Union City since 2013 to ease overcrowding at the Rice Street jail before buying it last year. Fulton County has a history of problems at its jail, including a number of lawsuits that have been filed regarding overcrowding and poor conditions.

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