Problems at Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender Office Are Brought To Light

In recent months, the Southern Center for Human Rights has received complaints from both clients of and staff attorneys at the Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender Office. Both groups describe an under-resourced office stretched so thin that many indigent defendants receive “representation” only in the most theoretical sense.

Staff attorneys at the public defender office are required to handle excessive caseloads. Many do so, moreover, with no dedicated office space, no computers, and no access to office telephones, printers, or other necessary supports that are indispensable for the practice of law. Inadequate staffing, underfunding, and a lack of oversight further undermine the public defender office’s ability to provide the quality of legal representation required by the U.S. Constitution.

Workload

Staff attorneys at the public defender office handle too many cases. Several staff attorneys report that they represent people in between 500 and 1,000 cases per year, excluding first appearances hearings. These reported numbers substantially exceed the maximum annual misdemeanor caseload limit for full-time attorneys recognized by the American Bar Association1 and other states. Indeed, some staff attorneys report handling double the recommended number of cases.

Inadequate Work Space

 

To our knowledge, the County provides three total office spaces for the public defender’s 18 attorneys and their support staff. One office belongs to the managing attorney, and another is assigned to the chief assistant public defender. The rest of the office’s staff, including seventeen lawyers and three non-attorney personnel, are assigned to the third office, a small room that has space for only three desks. Each desk has a desktop computer and a phone (although one of the phones does not function properly). One of the desks is assigned to the office manager, leaving two desks for the office’s seventeen staff attorneys. Pictures of this office are below. In the first picture, a water leak covers parts of the office floor.

This office is meant to house 20 people.
Another view.

Because staff attorneys do not have office space or office phones, many are required to rely on their personal cellphones to reach clients and handle other case-related matters. Others rely on messages tacked to a corkboard in the office, a system that wrongly assumes attorneys come to the office regularly when in fact, many do not because 1) there is nowhere to work in the office and 2) they are in court almost daily. Some staff attorneys report that there is only one cubicle available for their use.

Moreover, some staff attorneys report that they have waited months, and in some cases years, to receive a state- or county-issued laptop, while others have yet to receive a work computer. Others report that malfunctioning office printers and copiers sometimes compel them to print case-related documents at home.

Inadequate Staffing

The public defender’s office has one managing attorney and seventeen full-time staff attorneys responsible for representing indigent defendants accused of misdemeanors in ten state trial courts, three magistrate courts, and three accountability courts located throughout Fulton County. Each staff attorney is assigned to multiple courts at a time: they “must cover both trial courts, the magistrate courts, prepare for trials, and serve as duty defenders when not in court or preparing for trial.” The frequency of proceedings across courts requires staff attorneys to be in court almost every day of the week. Some staff attorneys report that they are in court four or five days a week, making it impossible for them to devote adequate time to their cases, files case-specific motions, research legal issues, and perform other basic duties of an attorney.

The Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender Office has many hardworking lawyers and administrative staff committed to safeguarding the constitutional rights of poor people accused of crime. Their dedication and commitment are to be lauded. But even the most well-intentioned lawyer cannot effectively work under the conditions described.

The Southern Center has sent a letter detailing the above issues — and more — to the Executive Director and State Level Services Director of the Georgia Public Defender Council, the Chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, and the Managing Public Defender for Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender, requesting steps be taken to remedy these problems.

Georgia Prisoners Are Subjected to “Harshest and Most Draconian” Solitary Confinement Units in the Nation

*Content Warning: some images are disturbing & contain blood*

The Special Management Unit (SMU) at Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison is the state’s most restrictive solitary confinement facility.  Prisoners there spend years wholly isolated in a small concrete room. The cells, which measure roughly the size of a parking spot, are designed to isolate prisoners from the outside world.  In the SMU’s most restrictive cellblocks, people are permitted no books or personal property, and do not leave their cells for any reason for a minimum of 90 days.  The isolated conditions are exacerbated by the constant din of yelling and banging on doors, the permeating stench of feces, and the dampness and mildew caused by in-cell showers.

A clean cell in Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison’s SMU

SMU prisoners are in some form of lockdown at all times. Most prisoners remain locked inside of their cells virtually 24 hours per day, five to seven days per week; on the other days, they spend about 22 hours or more per day alone in their cells.  “Recreation” takes place alone inside an empty cage and occurs, at most, for two hours, twice per week.  Prisoners in the SMU spend every moment alone in a small isolation cell, cage, or shower stall, or handcuffed behind the back while being escorted between one small space to another.  Prisoners liken these conditions to living in a “tomb” or “casket.”

The outdoor ‘exercise’ area, which some SMU prisoners are permitted to be in 5 hours per week.

The conditions of confinement are significantly more isolating than comparable units at other facilities, as the prisoners are wholly denied contact – even visually – with the outside world and other people. The doors to the SMU cells are made of solid metal, rather than open bars. There is a small metal shield over an opening in the door; it is typically kept closed, only to be opened briefly by prison staff. This means that men incarcerated in the SMU are unable to see out of their cell into the hallway, keeping any social interactions that would occur in other solitary confinement units with bars instead of metal doors from occurring.

The metal doors to an SMU cell.

Some of the units in E-Wing also have a metal shield covering the exterior window in the cell, essentially hermetically sealing the unit and keeping the men from experiencing natural light and air.

A window of a cell in E-Wing, sealed with a metal plate.

Dr. Craig Haney, perhaps the most qualified expert in the nation with respect to the psychological and physical harms caused by solitary confinement, characterizes Georgia’s SMU as “one of the harshest and most draconian” he has seen, and its prisoners as “among the most psychologically traumatized persons [he] ha[s] ever assessed.”  During his tour of the SMU, Dr. Haney encountered, among other things, a cellblock full of people with serious mental illness, a man who had been locked for months inside a pitch-black cell, and another man, naked and psychotic, whose cell was covered in blood.  While inspecting the SMU’s most restrictive cell block, Dr. Haney “was met with a cacophony of prisoner screams and cries for help. The noise was deafening and there was the smell of smoke in the air.”

Prisoners spend years subject to the SMU’s conditions, with the timing of their release entirely dependent on the whims or simple non-action of senior Department of Corrections officials.  Plaintiff Timothy Gumm spent seven and a half years in the SMU, despite 14 recommendations (over the course of 4 years) by SMU officials that he should be transferred to a less restrictive prison, while Johnny Mack Brown and Robert Watkins have been there for nine and eight years, respectively.  As of July 11, 2017, out of 182 prisoners assigned to the SMU, around 141 (78 %) had been there more than two years, 80 (44 %) had been there more than four years, and 47 (26 %) had been there more than five years.

Scientific studies substantiate the pain and suffering that isolated prisoners endure and the significant risk of serious psychological and physical harm to which they are exposed.  The SMU’s isolating conditions cause particular damage to the high number of people with mental illness housed there.  Out of the 30 prisoners in the SMU’s most restrictive wing, 26 men (or 87 % of the men in that unit) had diagnosed mental disorders.  A considerable number of SMU prisoners are driven to engage in extreme acts of self-harm, including cutting themselves, banging their heads against the wall, overdosing, attempting to hang themselves, eating feces, setting fire to their cells, and swallowing batteries or razor blades.

On the day that Dr. Haney and Southern Center staff visited the SMU, they encountered a man who had attempted suicide the day prior. He was taken out of his cell, evaluated, and then returned the next day. His cell had not been cleaned; it was still covered in blood. His arm had a deep, open wound.

Blood on the floor of an SMU cell.

“The practice of locking people away in a concrete box for years on end is both cruel and entirely counterproductive to the goals of public safety and rehabilitation,” says SCHR Managing Attorney, Sarah Geraghty.  “There is a growing national consensus that solitary confinement units like the SMU inflict lasting harm, exacerbate behavioral problems, and increase recidivism.”

On July 5, 2018, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, on behalf men incarcerated in the Special Management Unit at Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison.  The motion asks the federal court to require corrections officials to immediately remedy the prison’s intolerable conditions.

In their motion seeking a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs have asked the federal court to require Department of Corrections officials to take affirmative steps to ameliorate the unconstitutional conditions in the SMU, including the following:

  • Offer at least three hours of daily out-of-cell time to all prisoners in the SMU in a manner consistent with security concerns;
  • Establish within 30 days a plan for providing meaningful activities, consistent with security concerns, to people in the SMU; and
  • Establish within 30 days a plan to evaluate all prisoners in the SMU to determine which prisoners have mental illness and to promptly transfer such persons out of the SMU.

“The conditions at the SMU are beyond belief, beyond imagination.  There is no valid penological justification for it, unless the Georgia Department of Corrections believes that inducing total despair and hopelessness and encouraging suicide is such a purpose,” said Kilpatrick Townsend partner, Jay Bogan.

Read Dr. Haney’s report here.