OPINION: Sentenced to death, but never convicted, at the Fulton County Jail

The Fulton County Jail is located on Rice St in Atlanta, GA.  (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The Fulton County Jail is located on Rice St in Atlanta, GA. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Before former President Donald Trump’s armored motorcade ever drove through the fortified gates of the Fulton County Jail, Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat said he wanted Trump to be treated like everybody else getting booked there.

As promised, Trump was booked, fingerprinted, and had his mug shot released on the sheriff’s website just like anyone else. He was given the prisoner number P01135809.

The former president called it a “terrible experience.” But unlike anyone else detained in the hulking white fortress, he was in and out within 20 minutes and always heavily guarded by his own security detail. In a place as dangerous as Rice Street, he needed it, and not because he’s the former president.

But Trump was never neglected, forgotten, beaten, or bitten at the jail. He was never stabbed, starved, attacked, or left for dead, coated in bedbugs. So in reality, Donald Trump was treated nothing like other people in Fulton County custody, where 10 inmates have died this year alone. As details emerge from family members and private autopsies, we can only recoil at the horrific conditions described, including for those who have never been convicted of a crime and are simply waiting to be processed through the COVID-clogged courts.

The AJC and others, including independent journalist George Chidi, have been reporting on deaths and overcrowding at the jail for years. But the pace of deaths has increased, five in August alone, as have the horrors. The latest headlines should stop us in our tracks. “Third inmate death this month, second in a week, at Fulton County jail;” “Man who died in Fulton Jail pleaded for an end to violence, neglect;” “Fulton settlement in inmate’s bed bug death: Money, but no changes at jail;” “‘He didn’t deserve to die like this,’ mom says after latest Fulton inmate death.”

In August, the AJC’s Joszef Papp wrote about Alexander Hawkins, a 66-year-old who was found unresponsive in a medical unit cell at the Fulton County Jail while being held on a shoplifting charge.

Later in the month, Dylan Jackson wrote about 34-year-old Samuel Lawrence, who was found dead in his cell days after he’d hand-written a complaint about the jail, pleading for his life.

Lawrence was arrested in December for 2nd-degree arson, but had still not been indicted when he died.

Those deaths followed the news last year of Lashawn Thompson, who was found dead in a squalid mental-health cell, covered in lice and bedbugs. Officially, the cause of death was undetermined, but Thompson’s family reached a $4 million settlement with Fulton County earlier this month. A privately-funded autopsy describes “complications due to severe neglect.”

We often hear the mantra, “You do the crime, you do the time.” But neither Alexander Hawkins, nor Samuel Lawrence and or Lashawn Thompson had yet been convicted of the crimes they were accused of. And like them, a majority of the people at Rice Street are still waiting for bond hearings, arraignments, and other motions so that they can be processed through Fulton County courts. But they’re dying there nonetheless.

Some are being killed by other prisoners in a place that has been described as more violent than Atlanta’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The AJC’s Jim Gaines reported that in 2022, the Rice Street facility and the much smaller Union City jail saw a combined 11 fires, 114 stabbings and 534 fights. Yes, the jail has metal detectors, but the sheriff said the jail’s own crumbling walls are being refashioned as shanks.

He also said so many of Fulton County’s prisoners arrive mentally ill or struggling with addiction.

That should come as no surprise to state leaders who routinely hear from sheriffs across the state that local emergency rooms and jails have become homeless shelters for people struggling with addiction and mental illness and have nowhere else to go. Some commit petty crimes, others are violent and dangerous.

Those same lawmakers failed this year to approve additional funding to expand the bare-bones mental health treatment options in the state. But they did pass a package of “tough-on-crime” anti-gang laws and are leaning on local district attorneys to produce more prosecutions for violent offenders.

The Department of Justice is now investigating the Rice Street facility, at the request of U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff.

But whatever the federal investigation finds, state and local leaders should already know enough to be appalled, and take action.

The Fulton Commission is working on, but has not yet approved, a plan to build a new jail for nearly $2 billion dollars. If all goes according to plan, it will be ready in 2028, but more has to be done, by local, state, and federal leaders, between now and then.

Earlier this week, the mother of Shawndre Delmore talked to reporters, after Delmore was found dead at the jail, too. She said he was loving and wouldn’t hurt anybody. “He didn’t deserve to die like this,” she said.

The truth is nobody deserves to live like they’re living or die like they’re dying at the Fulton County Jail.

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