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.”