Capitol Recap: High suicide rate, rats among troubles cited at Atlanta penitentiary

Rats, sewage backups, mold, ubiquitous contraband and a troubling suicide rate were among the problems at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary that were cited during a hearing Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff held this past week. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

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Rats, sewage backups, mold, ubiquitous contraband and a troubling suicide rate were among the problems at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary that were cited during a hearing Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff held this past week. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

Ossoff-led panel holds hearing on prisons many problems

The Atlanta Federal Penitentiary isn’t like your average U.S. prison, witnesses told a congressional panel headed by Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff. It’s worse.

One federal judge, Ossoff said in his role as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, “noted that incarceration (there) is like adding another layer of punishment due to the appalling conditions.”

Rats, sewage backups, mold, ubiquitous contraband and a troubling suicide rate were among the problems at the prison cited during a hearing Ossoff held this past week.

“In roughly four years, eight inmates at USP Atlanta died by suicide: two prior to my arrival and six during my tenure,” Erika Ramirez, a former prison psychologist, told the panel. “To put this into perspective, federal prisons typically see between one and three suicides over a five-year period.”

Terri Whitehead, a former administrator at the penitentiary, said the rat infestation was so bad that staff propped open doors to the building to let in stray cats.

Whitehead then said what most would expect doesn’t need saying: “It is never a good idea to leave prison doors open.”

Ossoff said officials at the Federal Bureau of Prisons knew about the issues in Georgia and failed to act.

“Interviews and records reveal a facility where inmates, including presumptively innocent pretrial detainees, were denied proper nutrition, access to clean drinking water and hygiene products, lacked access to medical care, endured months of lockdown with limited or no access to the outdoors or basic services, and had rats and roaches in their food and cells,” Ossoff said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has documented issues at the penitentiary over the years, as well as a detention center for pre-trial defendants and a minimum-security prison camp contained on the same property south of downtown.

Ossoff, during testimony by Michael Carvajal, the outgoing director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, said he was troubled that Carvajal appeared to still be unaware of some of the specific concerns raised in Atlanta.

Carvajal acknowledged the issues at the penitentiary but said that steps had been taken to address them.

“We recognized the gravity of alleged misconduct at that facility,” he said, “and in July of 2021 we determined that it was in the best interest of the institution to take significant action. We reassigned staff, transferred inmates, lowered the security level and began updating infrastructure at the facility.”

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State Sen. Burt Jones, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, will not face questioning by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis or other prosecutors in her office as part of a special grand jury’s investigation into whether then-President Donald Trump and his allies broke the law in their attempts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election. The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia will select a replacement DA’s office to question Jones after a judge ruled in favor of his motion to block Willis because she had held a fundraiser for his Democratic opponent, Charlie Bailey. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

State Sen. Burt Jones, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, will not face questioning by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis or other prosecutors in her office as part of a special grand jury’s investigation into whether then-President Donald Trump and his allies broke the law in their attempts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election. The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia will select a replacement DA’s office to question Jones after a judge ruled in favor of his motion to block Willis because she had held a fundraiser for his Democratic opponent, Charlie Bailey. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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State Sen. Burt Jones, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, will not face questioning by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis or other prosecutors in her office as part of a special grand jury’s investigation into whether then-President Donald Trump and his allies broke the law in their attempts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election. The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia will select a replacement DA’s office to question Jones after a judge ruled in favor of his motion to block Willis because she had held a fundraiser for his Democratic opponent, Charlie Bailey. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Fulton DA won’t question Jones, but Hice remains a possibility

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis will not question Republican state Sen. Burt Jones as part of a special grand jury’s investigation into whether then-President Donald Trump and his allies broke the law in their attempts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election.

But she could get a chance to query U.S. Rep. Jody Hice.

Jones was among the 16 Republicans who served as fake electors for Trump in December 2020. All 16 were recently sent letters alerting them that they could be indicted, the DA’s office confirmed in a filing.

Some legal experts believe the fake electors may have violated state and federal laws such as forgery and election fraud.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, who is overseeing the grand jury, granted Jones’ motion to replace Willis and her office in the examination of his role as a fake elector.

The reason? Willis hosted a June fundraiser for Charlie Bailey, a former colleague in the Fulton DA’s office and now Jones’ Democratic opponent in the lieutenant governor’s race.

“An investigation of this significance, garnering the public attention it necessarily does and touching so many political nerves in our society, cannot be burdened by legitimate doubts about the District Attorney’s motives,” McBurney wrote in his ruling. “The District Attorney does not have to be apolitical, but her investigations do.”

The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia will select a replacement DA’s office to question Jones, according to the attorney general’s office.

Willis will apparently be free to question Hice.

U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May said she planned to deny Hice’s request to quash a subpoena from the special grand jury.

Hices attorneys had cited the U.S. Constitution’s “Speech or Debate” clause, which shields members of Congress from being questioned in court about their legislative activities and the motivations behind them.

The Republican from Greensboro embraced efforts to overturn Trump’s loss, and he introduced an objection to Georgia’s Electoral College votes. He also attended a Dec. 21, 2020, strategy meeting where plans were allegedly discussed to organize a slate of “alternative” GOP electors who would declare Trump the winner of the election.

May directed attorneys for Hice and the Fulton district attorney’s office to develop a framework for questions that can be posed to the congressman. Hice could still object to those questions and come back for a ruling from May, the judge said.

“The most important thing is to get this right,” May said.

Fake electors face investigation by state bar

The State Bar of Georgia has opened investigations into two lawyers who served on a fake slate of electors for then-President Donald Trump.

The bar association informed Brad Carver of Atlanta and Daryl R. Moody of Alpharetta that it has referred complaints against them to the State Disciplinary Board.

A nonprofit legal watchdog called the 65 Project filed the complaints in March, accusing Carver and Moody of violating professional conduct rules by falsely swearing to be official presidential electors for Georgia in documents that were submitted to state and federal officials.

The 65 Project has undertaken similar efforts in other states against lawyers who were involved in Trump’s campaign to overturn the election.

Carver, in an April letter to the bar association, accused the 65 Project of “weaponizing the bar’s grievance process and attempting to ruin attorneys’ lives and reputations for perceived political gain.”

The two Georgia lawyers were members of a slate of Republican electors who met in December 2020 to vote for Trump, even though Democrat Joe Biden had won the state.

At the time, Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer, another of the 16 fake electors, said they were casting votes to preserve Trump’s legal options in then-pending litigation that sought to overturn Biden’s victory. Since then, evidence has emerged that fake electors in Georgia and other states that Biden won played a key role in Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in Congress.

The complaints against Carver and Moody say they disregarded the U.S. Constitution and violated federal and state laws. It said the attorneys also violated professional rules against engaging in dishonest, fraudulent or deceitful acts.

In his written response, Carver said the Republican Party informed him the electors’ vote was needed to preserve Trump’s litigation, which was later withdrawn.

If the bar ultimately determines discipline is warranted, it could confidentially or publicly reprimand Carver and Moody, or it could take stronger action, such as a suspension or even disbarment.

Voter challenges target more than 25,000 registrations so far this year

Conservatives have challenged more than 25,500 voter registrations this year in Georgia through a process created in legislation that Republicans pushed through the General Assembly last year following Donald Trump’s defeat here in the 2020 presidential election.

They have succeeded in seeing more than 1,800 voters removed from the rolls in Chatham, Cobb, DeKalb, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett and Spalding counties, according to the voting rights organization Fair Fight Action.

Any voter can challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of their neighbors who they suspect have moved away based on voter lists, address records or property tax documents.

The challengers say they’re not targeting anyone based on their political beliefs or voting record. Instead, they’re seeking individuals whose names could be used to cast illegal votes in the future, even though Georgia requires voter ID before casting a ballot.

It’s not like the state has had a problem culling registrations from its list of 7.7 million voters. Using some of the nation’s most rigorous voter cancellation practices, Georgia has removed nearly 1 million outdated registrations over the past five years. That includes an electoral cleansing in 2017 that voided 534,000 registrations, believed to be the largest mass cancellation in U.S. history.

Election officials mailed notifications this summer to as many as 142,000 voters who appear to have moved. Those who don’t respond can be removed if they miss the next two general elections, a process that normally takes eight years. If they confirm they have moved, they are canceled without delay.

Voter challenges speed up the process of removal. County election boards are required to hold hearings on challenges within 10 business days.

County election boards usually reject challenges unless there’s conclusive evidence that a voter is no longer eligible in Georgia. But when the boards uphold allegations, the voters are immediately removed from Georgia’s rolls.

Sometimes eligible voters get caught in the process. That happened to Tracy Taylor, who is homeless and registered to vote at the address of a post office on Atlanta’s Westside.

“If I had a residential address, I would be using it,” Taylor told the Fulton County elections board during a hearing this month. “I’m trying to get back to a normal life.”

Fulton officials that day removed about 280 voters out of about 1,500 challenges. Taylor was told to re-register at a courthouse address.

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Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams unveiled a plan that would go after predatory landlords who have prioritized profits over the safety of their tenants. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams unveiled a plan that would go after predatory landlords who have prioritized profits over the safety of their tenants. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams unveiled a plan that would go after predatory landlords who have prioritized profits over the safety of their tenants. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Abrams proposes plan aimed at predatory landlords

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams unveiled a plan targeting predatory landlords for keeping families in unsafe living conditions as part of a larger proposal to address the state’s affordable housing crisis.

Abrams would give more authority to local code inspectors to go after out-of-state firms that have been buying up cities’ housing and apartment stock, raising rents and then forcing tenants to live in dilapidated structures with little power to fight back.

The candidate cited The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Dangerous Dwellings” series as describing in “concrete detail” what’s happening across the state in terms of rental unit habitability.

A recent AJC investigation found that at least three-fourths of the most dangerous complexes in metro Atlanta — where violent crime and dangerous living conditions combine to make apartments all but uninhabitable — belong to private equity firms and other remote investors who, facing little government oversight, prioritize earnings over their tenants’ well-being.

Abrams also blasted Gov. Brian Kemp, her Republican opponent, for not doing more to curb housing inequality.

Kemp spokesman Tate Mitchell said the governor has allocated $100 million in the past year to support nonprofits that provide affordable housing and help people who are homeless.

After loss at federal level, abortion rights supporters take case to state court

Abortion providers and advocates are taking their fight to state court after a federal appeals court allowed a 2019 Georgia law to go into effect, making way for tight restrictions on the procedure.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month cleared the way for the statute that bans most abortions once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, typically about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, representing abortion rights advocates and providers, said the new law violates the state right to privacy by giving prosecutors “virtually unfettered access to the medical files of anyone who seeks an abortion, without a subpoena.”

Monica Simpson, executive director of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Center, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the new law will have a disproportionate effect on poor Georgians and people of color, who often have limited access to health care and may find it difficult to travel to other states to terminate a pregnancy.

Cole Muzio, who runs the conservative Frontline Policy Action group and lobbied lawmakers to pass the 2019 law, called the suit “a pathetic attempt to please fringe activists and donors.”

Julia Kaye, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said the state Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of an individual’s right to privacy, citing a 1998 example where the court ruled an anti-sodomy law unconstitutional.

“This lawsuit is grounded in more than a century of Georgia Supreme Court precedent, establishing that the Georgia Constitution is highly protective of an individual’s right to be free from political interference with their body, health and life,” Kaye said.

Political expedience

  • Backed by the blue: The Police Benevolent Association of Georgia has endorsed Gov. Brian Kemp’s reelection bid.
  • Honoring Isakson: The U.S. Senate has agreed to rename the Department of Veterans Affairs’ administrative offices in Decatur after former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who died in December. Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff and Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri were co-sponsors of the legislation paying tribute to Isakson.

More top stories online

Here’s a sample of other stories about Georgia government and politics that can be found at www.ajc.com/politics/: