Feds launch investigation into Fulton Sheriff's Office for 'pattern of constitutional violations' at jail

The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into jail conditions in Fulton County, with officials citing violence, filthy conditions and excessive force by jail officers. (Matthew Pearson/ WABE)

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office for civil rights violations at the county jail.

The inquiry will examine living conditions, access to medical and mental health care, use of excessive force by staff and conditions that may have led to violence between incarcerated individuals at the Fulton County Jail.

Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice, said it would also examine whether the sheriff’s office discriminates against those with psychiatric disabilities.

“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.

The move is pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act — a federal law that authorizes the Department of Justice to investigate state institutions, including county jails, to determine whether incarcerated people are subjected to a pattern or practice of constitutional violations — and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that incarcerated people with disabilities have access to the same public services and benefits as nondisabled incarcerated people.

According to Clarke, 87% of the jail population in Fulton County is Black and the vast majority have not been convicted. They are awaiting bail hearings, competency evaluations and restoration services or are detained because of their inability to post bail.

Clarke said the announcement comes after 35-year-old Lashawn Thompson was found dead in his cell on the psychiatric floor of the jail last year. He had been arrested on a misdemeanor charge just three months prior.  

“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.”

In a statement to WABE, attorney Michael Harper said Thompson’s family is “encouraged” by the investigation. They have called for the facility to be shut down.

“The independent autopsy established that Mr. Thompson died due to severe neglect at the jail, and we hope the responsible parties are held accountable,” Harper said.

Natalie Ammons, a spokesperson for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, did not say whether the investigation would halt plans to re-open the South Fulton Jail Annex in Union City, which officials have said could re-open later this month.

“Fulton County and the sheriff’s office have been made aware of the civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice to examine conditions at the Fulton County Jail and will be cooperating fully with the investigation,” Ammons said.

The reopening of the South Annex is one of several steps the county has taken recently to relieve chronic overcrowding at its jail facilities. It’s intended to house detainees while repairs are being done to the main jail.

Alton Adams, chief operating officer for justice, public safety and technology, said at the board of commissioners meeting on July 10 that, in all, the county has an average weekly jail population of about 3,600 people.

Nearly all are at the main jail, while the rest are at the Atlanta City Detention Center or county-owned facilities in Marietta and Alpharetta.

County Manager Dick Anderson said the county is finalizing its contract with healthcare provider NaphCare to be able to re-open the South Annex. The Alabama-based company faces numerous allegations of medical neglect in Fulton and Gwinnett counties, including Thompson’s case.

According to reports, a 19-year-old woman, Noni Battiste-Kosoko, was found dead in her cell at the Atlanta City Detention Center on July 12, less than 24 hours after the Department of Justice announced its investigation. She was in the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office’s custody and was arrested in May due to a misdemeanor bench warrant. She was held without bond on charges out of Miami.

Meanwhile, the county is discussing building a new jail almost four times the size of the current main jail. So far, officials say it’s estimated to cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.