When the phone call came from the South Fulton Jail in April of 2017, Willie Ruth Myrick blacked out. The chaplain informed her that her 44-year-old daughter, Kesha Brownlee, was dead. Though the details would not be clear for weeks, Ms. Brownlee’s autopsy eventually revealed that she had ingested a plastic spoon, and the head of a toothbrush. This had resulted in a perforated pharynx, which caused her death. She had been found in a cell littered with trash, blood, food, and dirty clothes earlier that day, with a large gash on her head. “I can’t tell you the pain of it,” Ms. Myrick said. “It’s unlike everything else. I lost my parents, my grannies – but this? To lose a child, it’s unlike any other death. It’s almost to the point where you can’t bear it.”
Ms. Brownlee, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, suffered from severe mental illness for the better part of 25 years. At the time of her death in April 2017, she was being held on a probation warrant at the jail. Her solitary confinement cell was filthy.
“Kesha was very mentally ill,” Ms. Myrick said. “She was first diagnosed when she turned 20. She had been in and out of jail and mental institutions for years. It was a vicious cycle with no end.”
“We cannot allow conditions like these to become normalized in our criminal legal culture,” said Southern Center for Human Rights managing attorney Sarah Geraghty. “For the memory of Ms. Brownlee, for her family, and for other women in the system, we have to do better than warehousing people with mental illness in jail cells.”
Warehousing Persons with Mental Illness
The South Fulton Jail houses women with serious mental illness in three “mental health pods.” Most such women are housed alone because they are deemed too ill to share space. Some are kept in their cells, around the clock, for weeks or months at a time. They are subjected to more extreme isolation than convicted people in Georgia’s most restrictive prison solitary confinement unit.
Ms. Myrick acknowledges the difficulty of managing people with severe mental illnesses. “I know it’s got to be hard,” she said. “These mentally ill people do mentally ill stuff. You put them in there with guards who are not capable of dealing with this. Then this is what you get, right here. Someone will wind up dead.”
Many of the women who appear to be most in need of psychiatric care are being detained for petty offenses. Some are languishing in isolation cells simply because they cannot pay bond amounts as low as $200. Many of the offenses for which these women have been jailed are a result of the symptoms of their mental illnesses: on visits to the jail, the Southern Center for Human Rights legal team has noted multiple women charged with offenses of “public indecency,” such as sitting, partially clothed, on a curb, or walking down a street without pants. Other offenses include shouting boisterously at a shopping mall or refusing to leave a McDonald’s.
One woman had been held in the jail from May 8, 2018 to August 9, 2018, awaiting trial for being partially unclothed at a MARTA bus stop. Because she couldn’t afford her $500 bond, she had been held in her isolation cell 24 hours a day, removed only for court dates. Numerous other detainees had expressed concern to the SCHR legal team that she had not bathed, or left her cell, for months.
Another woman had been arrested for making loud, boisterous comments at a mall where police noted that she “appeared to be mentally ill.” She had been incarcerated in solitary confinement for over 225 days at the jail. She showed signs of profound mental illness, and had been deemed incompetent to stand trial. She had been ordered to Georgia Regional Hospital in March 2018, yet still remains in the jail.
Solitary confinement poses a grave risk to people with mental illness. Groups like the American Psychiatric Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care have warned against any use of isolated confinement for this population.
A Call for Change
In a letter to Sheriff Ted Jackson, Chief Jailer Colonel Mark Adger, and Chief State Court Judge Diane Bessen, the Southern Center for Human Rights is calling on government officials to address the unconstitutional conditions and lengthy detention for women with mental illness awaiting trial in the South Fulton Jail.
In response to the letter, Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts called SCHR’s allegations “simply appalling” and said he will be talking to the sheriff to address the concerns raised by SCHR. “At a minimum, the recommendations suggested by the Southern Center for Human Rights should be implemented immediately,” Pitts said.
“Disabled women who cannot afford to pay their way out of jail are experiencing our criminal court system at its worst,” said SCHR attorney Atteeyah Hollie. “We must equip correctional and court staff so they can protect poor and disabled women from the lengthy jail stays and inhumane treatment we’ve seen to date.”
“This won’t just disappear,” said Ms. Myrick. “You can’t sweep these problems under the rug. My daughter was a human being, and she had family that loved her. She was a mother. She has 3 sons left here. I don’t want her death in that jail to be in vain. I don’t want another parent to go through what I’ve gone through.”