ATLANTA (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into jail conditions in Georgia’s most populous county, with officials citing violence, filthy conditions and the death last year of a man whose body was found covered in insects. Investigators will look at living conditions, access to medical and mental health
ATLANTA (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into jail conditions in Georgia’s most populous county, with officials citing violence, filthy conditions and the death last year of a man whose body was found covered in insects.
Investigators will look at living conditions, access to medical and mental health care, use of excessive force by staff and conditions that may give rise to violence between people held in Fulton County jails, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said during a news conference Thursday. The county’s main jail is in Atlanta and has a long history of problems.
“Our investigation into these matters is guided by one core principle: People held in jails and prisons do not surrender their constitutional and civil rights at the jailhouse door,” Clarke said.
People held in Fulton County are “predominantly people of color,” she said, adding that data shows 87% of the jail population is Black.
“This is a racial justice issue,” Clarke said.
A spokesperson for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond Thursday to an email seeking comment on the federal investigation. Sheriff Pat Labat, who took office in 2021, has previously said the main jail has been “operating in crisis mode for decades,” and he has called for a new jail to be built.
Clarke cited the death in September of Lashawn Thompson, 35, in a bedbug-infested cell in the Fulton County Jail’s psychiatric wing, noting that an independent autopsy done at his family’s request found he died from severe neglect. Photos released earlier this year by attorneys for Thompson’s family showed his body covered in insects and a filthy cell strewn with garbage.
“Those circumstances were far from isolated,” Clarke said. “Following Mr. Thompson’s death, evidence emerged that the mental health unit where he died was infested with insects and that the majority of people living in that unit were malnourished and not receiving basic care.”
She said the Justice Department will also look into “whether the Fulton County Jail discriminates against incarcerated people with psychiatric disabilities.”
Clarke noted that Labat has called Thompson’s death unconscionable and has acknowledged that terrible conditions in the main jail “interfere with the ability to provide basic safety for all people in the facility.”
Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Thompson’s family, in April called on the Justice Department to investigate the jail. Michael Harper, another attorney for Thompson’s family, said in and emailed statement that the family is “encouraged” by the Justice Department investigation.
“While nothing can undo the injustice that Lashawn Thompson faced, it is a tragedy that can hopefully amount to much needed change inside of the Fulton County Jail,” Crump and Harper said in a separate, joint statement. “It is our prayer that the DOJ confirms the clear pattern of negligence and abuse that happens in Fulton County and swiftly ends it so that no other family experiences this devastation.”
The announcement of the investigation comes just two days after a 19-year-old woman died in her cell while in Fulton County custody. Noni Battiste-Kosoko was being held in a part of the Atlanta city jail that is controlled by the Fulton County sheriff’s office when she was found unresponsive in her cell Tuesday and was pronounced dead by medical personnel, the sheriff’s office said in a news release. She was alone in her cell and had no obvious signs of injury, the release said.
Clarke called the level of violence in Fulton’s jails “deeply concerning,” saying that “at one point in 2022, the jails averaged more than one stabbing per day.” Jail officers recently found more than 200 weapons in the main jail and the sheriff said people are “crafting shanks from the crumbling walls” of the building, she said. There were three suspected homicides at the main jail last year, she said.
Clarke was joined for the announcement by U.S. Attorney Ryan Buchanan, who oversees the northern district of Georgia.
“This investigation will be independent, thorough and fair,” Buchanan said. “We look forward to working cooperatively with the Fulton County sheriff and Fulton County to move the investigation along as quickly as possible.”
A Justice Department civil rights investigation into Georgia’s state prisons that was launched in September 2021 remains ongoing.
Kate Brumback, The Associated Press