Attorneys for some female inmates said they found cells covered in urine and feces. Fulton County’s new sheriff has since pledged to drastically better inmates’ living conditions.
A Georgia sheriff has promised to improve conditions for women with serious mental illnesses after a lawsuit alleged that solitary confinement and unsanitary conditions risked exacerbating their conditions and causing greater psychological harm.
According to ABC News, attorneys who visited the South Fulton County Municipal Regional Jail said they saw women in clear “psychological distress” lying on the floor, their bodies and walls covered in urine, feces, and food. Housing units were purportedly covered in urine and toilet water, while inmates were regularly served mold-covered bread and sandwiches.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Ray gave preliminary approval to a settlement agreement signed by Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat and attorneys for the female plaintiffs.
The jail, adds The Associated Press, is located in Union City, about 18 miles southwest of Atlanta.
The lawsuit, first filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights, alleged that South Fulton County Municipal Regional Jail inmates spent up to 23 hours per day inside their cells; when they were allowed outside, it was only to spend time alone inside their cell block’s “dayroom.” Prisoners in solitary confinement were thereby deprived of most any and all meaningful social interaction.
Devon Orland of the Georgia Advocacy Office said he is pleased that Sheriff Labat has recognized the problem and has taken steps to ensure that women with mental disorders will have access to better treatment.
“The damage caused by the lack of mental health services in the community is compounded by the ongoing harm caused to people with psychiatric disabilities who are not treated and subjected to further abuses while incarcerated,” Orland said. “We appreciate that the Sheriff has taken responsibility for ensuring that people within the South Fulton Jail are allowed out of their cells and are provided treatment.”
The settlement agreement signed by Labat stipulates that women shall be allowed outside of their cells for at least four hours per day, five days per week; at least one of those hours will include access to an outdoor yard. When the weather does not permit outdoor recreation, women will be able to visit an in-house gymnasium.
Jail staff will be required to keep records of when women are offered out-of-cell time, including the time they actually spend outside of their cell. This information must be sent to the women’s attorneys every two weeks.
The settlement includes a number of other changes, including enhanced access to medication, therapy, and group counseling, as well reading materials, “clean drinking water,” and personal hygiene items.
Any jail staff who interact with psychologically distressed or mentally disabled inmates must be provided special training.
Labat, adds The Associated Press, took office in January 2021. After his election, Labat said he is committed to improving jail conditions while keeping staff safe.
“We continue the important work of improving jail conditions, working closely with experts in the field of mental health, and correctional services,” Labat told The A.P. in an email statement. “Through this work, conditions for mentally ill detainees at the South Annex have improved dramatically since this litigation began.”