The 2019 Legislative Session has Begun

On Monday, the 2019 Legislative Session began with the swearing in of Governor Brian Kemp, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, lawmakers, and other state elected officials. There are a lot of new faces at the Capitol, and a seemingly palpable recognition that there has been a shift in political power. Though the Senate and the House are still overwhelmingly led by Republicans, the Democrats gained thirteen seats in the last election, and now have a significant majority in the Fulton County delegation. Typically, lawmakers are more willing to pass the new Governor’s agenda in his first legislative session, in order to establish a mutually beneficial relationship that allows both branches to more easily create and enforce the laws they want. At this point, we are unsure of what will happen with criminal justice reform in the next forty legislative days, but we are expecting a longer than usual session because of the semi-late start, the upcoming MLK holiday, and the impending Super Bowl that will be held in Atlanta at the beginning of February.

While Governor Kemp repeatedly said he supported the reforms passed by his predecessor, Governor Nathan Deal, he has yet to adopt any of the specific reforms recommended by Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform in his policy agenda. The Council made clear in its final report that there is still work to be done, and asked lawmakers in 2019 (and beyond) to consider finding ways to assess and collect fines and fees in a way that ensures that vulnerable communities are not disproportionately impacted, improving access and quality of mental health treatment so that people who need help are not put in jail, and changing the use of harsh and ineffective mandatory minimum prison sentences. The only criminal justice issues that Kemp has committed to so far has been to aggressively prosecute gang activity, immigration violations, and sex trafficking. None of these policies would improve public safety nor spend taxpayer dollars wisely. For example, Kemp has said he wants to see the creation of a gang database, in order to track and monitor everyone believed to be involved in gang activity. The research makes clear, however, that these databases do not keep people safe; instead, they unfairly target racial minorities and waste of resources that could more appropriately be spent on improving public schools, expanding affordable housing, and increasing the opportunities for economic mobility.

SCHR is ready to respond to any legislation introduced this session that would result in policies that advance racial injustice, criminalize poverty, endorse the death penalty, or weaken the state’s public defender system. Despite the concern with Kemp’s criminal justice priorities, SCHR is working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to create the mental health study committee recommended by the Council on Criminal Justice Reform. We also are working with Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation to improve jail and prison conditions for women, address the inhumane use of solitary confinement, and tackle sentencing disparities.

Community engagement during this session will be critical to the success of reforms that will improve the lives of Georgians impacted by the criminal legal system. To that end, there will be several advocacy opportunities for people interested in criminal justice reform during the 2019 session. The Justice Reform Partnership, the SCHR-led coalition of nearly eighty organizations committed to criminal justice reform, will host eight advocacy days at the Capitol this session. These days, titled Talk Justice Tuesdays, will be held every Tuesday beginning on January 22nd through March 19th, which will include the annual Justice Day at the Capitol on February 26th. Each Tuesday, JRP organizations will focus on an aspect of the system and engage interested individuals by offering information and opportunities to advocate for specific policy reforms. Topics for Talk Justice Tuesdays include expungement, conditions for incarcerated women, the impact on children and families, and access to housing. Additional information about Talk Justice Tuesdays and Justice Day at the Capitol can be found at www.JusticeDay365.com.

Georgia Prisoners Reach Settlement to Reform One of the “Harshest and Most Draconian” Solitary Confinement Units in the Nation

The Southern Center for Human Rights and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, LLP, have reached a settlement with the Georgia Department of Corrections in Gumm v. Sellers, a case challenging solitary confinement in Georgia’s Special Management Unit (SMU). Plaintiff Timothy Gumm was held in the SMU for 7.5 years.  Plaintiff Robert Watkins is now in his tenth year of confinement in the unit.

Conditions in the SMU Before Litigation

Built in 2007, the SMU was designed to isolate people in an extremely harsh form of solitary confinement.  Those assigned to the unit were locked inside specially equipped, parking-space sized cells that deprived them of normal communication and socialization with others.  For many years, the Georgia Department of Corrections placed no fixed limits on who could be confined to the unit, what conditions they would endure while there, or how long they would be subjected to those conditions.

By 2017, the unit had deteriorated to the point where people were being confined to isolation cells for nearly 24 hours per day on average, unable even to see out of a window or interact normally with another person.  A number of them stayed in these cells literally around the clock for months at a time.  Research shows that isolation of this kind for even a few days can produce a range of harmful effects, but Georgia placed people in these conditions for years with no clear pathway out.  People frequently were forced to restart the program from the beginning.  Many were able to leave the unit only after completing their prison sentences and being released to society.

Nearly half of those assigned to the unit had documented mental disorders requiring treatment, and they frequently resorted to extreme measures to cope with the stress of isolation, including cutting themselves, swallowing harmful objects or pills, banging their heads against the wall, and smearing feces on their cells and bodies.  Two men committed suicide in the SMU in 2017.

After touring the unit in October 2017 and speaking with the people confined there, nationally renowned psychologist Dr. Craig Haney authored an expert report observing that some of those he spoke with “were among the most psychologically traumatized persons I have ever assessed in this context.”  Dr. Haney’s report identified numerous problems that made the SMU “one of the harshest and most draconian” facilities in the country and placed people housed there “at significant risk of very serious psychological harm.”

“Dr. Haney’s report was a watershed moment that caused the Department to reexamine its philosophy around solitary confinement,” said SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty.  “A civilized society doesn’t lock people in isolation cells for years on end.  It was past time to move out of the dark ages.”

Settlement Terms & Reforms Going Forward

In December 2017, the parties reached a settlement agreement concerning conditions and procedures in the SMU.

The settlement terms provide that:

  • Every person held in the SMU must be allowed at least 4 hours per day out of their cells except on weekends and holidays. People will no longer have out-of-cell time denied as a punishment except for short periods following serious misconduct.
  • Except in narrowly defined circumstances, assignment to the SMU cannot exceed 24 months. Any prisoner held for longer than two years will be reviewed quarterly by a special panel composed of senior security, legal, and mental health professionals.
  • People may qualify for transfer from the SMU as soon as 13 months after assignment and may not be arbitrarily moved backward in the program.
  • Everyone in the SMU is assigned a computer tablet equipped with educational programs, email capability, music, and other media.
  • People are also permitted library access and the opportunity to participate in at least 120 minutes per week of out-of-cell programming or classes.
  • The criteria for assignment to the SMU will be modified to limit those who may be placed in the unit.
  • Before assignment to the SMU, and in conjunction with every 60-day or 90-day review hearing, people will receive an out-of-cell mental health evaluation performed by a licensed mental health provider. If the provider finds that someone is decompensating or is likely to decompensate, they will be transferred to an appropriate treatment facility.

The SMU’s population has decreased significantly due to the recent reforms.  In October 2017, the population was 180.  Today it is about 100.

“This settlement has provided and will continue to provide critical relief to the people who have experienced extraordinary suffering while confined in Georgia’s SMU,” said Allen Garrett, a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, and one of the plaintiffs’ counsel.  “As the result of this case, the Department of Corrections has agreed to meaningful reforms that will provide SMU prisoners with essential human interaction and tangible guideposts for getting out of the SMU,” said Garrett.

The settlement will not become final until the federal court approves its terms as fair and reasonable.