ATLANTA (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into jail conditions in Georgia’s most populous county, with officials citing violence, filthy conditions and excessive force by jail officers.
Investigators will look at living conditions, access to medical and mental health care, use of excessive force by staff and conditions that may give rise to violence between people held in Fulton County’s jails, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said during a news conference Thursday. The county’s main jail is in Atlanta and has a long history of problems.
“Our investigation into these matters is guided by one core principle: People held in jails and prisons do not surrender their constitutional and civil rights at the jailhouse door,” Clarke said.
People held in Fulton County are “predominantly people of color,” she said, adding that data shows 87% of the jail population is Black.
“This is a racial justice issue,” Clarke said.
A spokesperson for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond Thursday to an email seeking comment on the federal investigation. Sheriff Pat Labat has previously said the main jail has been “operating in crisis mode for decades.”
Clarke cited the death in September of Lashawn Thompson, 35, in a bedbug-infested cell in the Fulton County Jail’s psychiatric wing, noting that an independent autopsydone at his family’s request found he died from severe neglect. Photos released earlier this year by attorneys for Thompson’s family showed his body covered in insects and a filthy cell strewn with garbage.
“Those circumstances were far from isolated,” Clarke said. “Following Mr. Thompson’s death, evidence emerged that the mental health unit where he died was infested with insects and that the majority of people living in that unit were malnourished and not receiving basic care.”
Clarke noted that Labat has called Thompson’s death unconscionable and has acknowledged the main jail is terrible shape and that the conditions “interfere with the ability to provide basic safety for all people in the facility.” Labat, who took office in 2021, has been pushing for a new jail.
Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Thompson’s family, in April called on the Justice Department to investigate the jail.
The announcement of the investigation comes just two days after a 19-year-old woman died in her cell while in Fulton County custody. Noni Battiste-Kosoko was being held in a part of the Atlanta city jail that is controlled by the Fulton County sheriff’s office when she was found unresponsive in her cell Tuesday and was pronounced dead by medical personnel, the sheriff’s office said in a news release. She was in her cell alone and had no obvious signs of injury, the release said.
Clarke called the level of violence in Fulton’s jails “deeply concerning,” saying that “at one point in 2022, the jails averaged more than one stabbing per day.” Jail officers recently found more than 200 weapons in the main jail and the sheriff said people are “crafting shanks from the crumbling walls” of the building, she said.
Clarke was joined for the announcement by U.S. Attorney Ryan Buchanan, who oversees the northern district of Georgia.
“This investigation will be independent, thorough and fair,” Buchanan said. “We look forward to working cooperatively with the Fulton County sheriff and Fulton County to move the investigation along as quickly as possible.”
A Justice Department civil rights investigation into Georgia’s state prisons that was launched in September 2021 remains ongoing.