Judge Grants Injunction to Halt Solitary Confinement and to Remedy “Repulsive” Conditions for Women at South Fulton Jail

United States District Court Judge William M. Ray, II issued a preliminary injunction ordering the Sheriff of Fulton County to take immediate steps to remedy unconstitutional conditions and solitary confinement for women at the South Fulton Jail in Union City. The order comes in Georgia Advocacy Office, et al. v. Sheriff Jackson, et al., a putative class action filed on behalf of women with psychiatric disabilities in the South Fulton Jail’s mental health unit.  The named plaintiffs, M.J. and K.H., are represented by counsel from the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO) and the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR).  Defendants are Sheriff Jackson, Colonel Mark Adger, and other senior jail officials.

Conditions and Solitary Confinement

During three days of testimony beginning on July 15, Plaintiffs presented evidence that Fulton County jailers respond to symptoms of mental illness by confining women with psychiatric disabilities in isolation cells for months on end.  Plaintiffs further presented photographs from a February 2019 inspection by GAO showing: garbage strewn cells, standing toilet water on the floor, a trail of urine flowing from a cell door, bloody clothes and underwear stained with fecal matter lying in the hallway, toilets full of garbage, and feces and blood on the walls.  Uncontested evidence showed that women with psychiatric disabilities at the jail are locked down in their isolation cells between 23-and 24-hours per day.

One of these women is Plaintiff M.J., a 20-year-old homeless woman. She was arrested in November 2018 on a charge of criminal trespass for allegedly refusing to leave a shopping mall when asked. She has a $500 bond but is unable to afford it. Because she has been identified by Defendants as a person experiencing psychiatric disabilities, jailers isolated M.J. in a so-called “mental health pod” where she was locked inside her cell for over 23 hours per day on average. She twice attempted suicide at the jail during her extended isolation.

Another former detainee, S.P., presented emotional testimony regarding her experience at the jail. She informed the Court that she was kept in isolation for over four months after being charged with misdemeanor trespassing.  Locked in a cell around the clock for weeks without clean clothes or the opportunity to bathe, S.P.’s condition declined dramatically over her time at the jail, to the point that she required hospitalization.

Defendant Adger acknowledged the 23- to 24-hour per day isolation for women in the mental health unit, but noted that his office is working on a plan to improve conditions for women in the mental health pods.

The Court’s Injunction

In issuing its order, the Court referred to the jail conditions as “repulsive,” and noted that people familiar with these  conditions “really ought to have a hard time sleeping at night.”

“It’s unusual for a Court order preliminary relief,” said Devon Orland, Litigation Director for the Georgia Advocacy Office, “the Court wisely recognized that there was a tremendous need for immediate action in order to avoid immediate and irreparable harm.  We hope that the Court’s ruling will bring the County to the table to discuss how to support these women in humane conditions.”

The Court ordered Defendants to offer at least 4 hours of daily out-of-cell time to each woman assigned to its mental health unit, within 30 days of its order.  The Court further ordered the Defendants to establish and file with the Court a written plan, designed to be implemented in another 30 days, for providing sanitary conditions of confinement and out-of-cell therapeutic activities to each woman assigned to the mental health unit.  The Court noted that failure to comply with the order shall not be excused by allegations of inadequate staffing.

“This injunction will likely save someone’s life,” said SCHR Managing Attorney Sarah Geraghty, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.  “The extreme isolation imposed on women at the jail and the appalling conditions in the mental health unit have long been a recipe for disaster.  We are grateful to the Court for its ruling today.”

SCHR’s Public Policy Director Appointed As Leader of New National Criminal Justice Organization

Marissa Dodson.

Southern Center for Human Rights Public Policy Director Marissa Dodson has been appointed to the Board of Directors of a new national criminal justice organization, the Council on Criminal Justice.

Independent and nonpartisan, the Council is an invitational membership organization and think tank that advances understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and builds consensus for solutions that enhance safety and justice for all. The organization believes a fair and effective criminal justice system is essential to democracy and a core measure of our nation’s well-being.

The Council’s advisory Board of Trustees includes U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Mark Holden of Koch Industries, and Van Jones of CNN.

The Council is governed by a 16-member Board of Directors led by Laurie Robinson, who twice served as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. The Council was founded by its president and chief executive officer, Adam Gelb, a former journalist, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, and director of public safety initiatives at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Marissa and other Directors will advise the Council about which public safety and justice issues it should focus on, help select general Council members, and how the Council can best fulfill its mission and serve its members and the field at large.

Council membership rewards the accomplishments of established leaders and serves to develop a strong, diverse cohort of emerging leaders who will steer the field through future challenges. It also supports a field that is more inclusive of those whose perspectives often are overlooked, such as formerly incarcerated people. Leaders and lifetime members of the Council are selected based on multiple criteria, including intellectual achievement, practical impact, dedication to research-informed policy making, standing among peers, promise of future service to the field, and potential for contributing to the Council’s work.

Georgia Fails to Adhere to Federal Standards for Granting Drivers Licenses to Puerto Ricans

Georgia DDS Retains Government Documents from Puerto Rico, Detains Applicants Presenting the Documents and Fails to Issue Them Driver’s Licenses

Today, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the Southern Center for Human Rights  filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of named-Plaintiff Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, a US citizen born in Puerto Rico, and similarly situated individuals, who are challenging the Georgia Department of Driver’s Services’ (DDS) unlawful and discriminatory treatment of American citizens from Puerto Rico. The lawsuit was filed because DDS seizes identity documents presented by these American citizens and often fails to make a decision on their applications for driver’s licenses. Sometimes, as DDS did with Caban, these citizens are detained and arrested.

The lawsuit alleges that Georgia DDS is disobeying the Constitution by treating these American citizens differently than U.S. mainland-born citizens by not providing them with driver’s licenses and by not giving them a chance for a fair hearing. Further, the lawsuit alleges that Georgia DDS requires Puerto Ricans to undergo extra driver testing, and forces Puerto Rican-born applicants to answer questions about Puerto Rico in order to prove that they are Puerto Rican. They are asked to answer trick questions like the name of an inland city’s non-existent beach, the name of a frog indigenous to Puerto Rico or what a meat filled with plantain fritter is called.

“Puerto Ricans who are trying to start a new life in Georgia deserve access to the same benefits that are afforded to other citizens of the United States. We believe that across Georgia there are many Puerto Ricans who face the same kind of intimidation that Kenneth experienced, and we cannot allow for this kind of overt discrimination to take place.” said Jorge Vasquez, Associate Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

“Puerto Rican Americans are not second-rate citizens and should be treated with the respect afforded every American.  The so-called quiz, applied to Puerto Rican drivers, bears a strikingly disturbing resemblance to the tests applied by segregationists to block voter registration of people of color,” said Gerry Weber, Senior Attorney at SCHR.

It has been over 600 days since Mr. Caban Gonzalez applied for a Georgia driver’s license, yet DDS has not issued him a license, returned his documents or offered an explanation as to why he is not eligible for the license. Not having a license makes it very hard for Mr. Caban Gonzalez to find employment in his field (which requires a valid driver’s license), and makes taking his infant daughter to doctor’s appointment, attending to his own medical needs, grocery shopping, having a social life, and much more nearly impossible. Also, driving without a valid license is a criminal offense in Georgia, carrying a minimum fine of $500 and a year of imprisonment.