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Old 06-30-2004, 08:36 AM
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Post ARTICLE: Federal Judge may take over Fulton Co. Jail, GA

Federal judge may take over Fulton jail

By STEVE VISSER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/26/04


U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob has challenged Fulton County officials to tell him why he shouldn't replace Sheriff Jackie Barrett as head of the jail.

In a written order Friday, Shoob said Barrett "appears either unable or unwilling to deal with the serious problems facing the jail."

"The jail is like a leaky rudderless ship, overloaded with dangerous and ill passengers, without a captain and with a short-handed crew," Shoob wrote. "Given the extremely dangerous and deteriorating conditions at the Fulton County jail, the court concludes that immediate action is necessary."

Shoob's order came in response to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Southern Center for Human Rights, which asked for federal intervention because of overcrowding and dangerous conditions at the jail.

Barrett said Friday she wanted to talk with her lawyers before commenting on the judge's order.

If Shoob appoints a temporary custodian, it would be his second intervention in five years. The judge placed the jail under his supervision from 1999 to 2002 in response to a previous lawsuit by the human rights organization.

The lawsuit filed this week said there aren't enough guards to safeguard the jail and that sections designed to be staffed by 14 guards are staffed by two. It said plumbing, ventilation and air conditioning, laundry and electrical systems are broken.

"Many inmates live with the stench of raw sewage, which comes up from drains, overflows from toilets and drips from ruptured pipes," Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, wrote in the lawsuit. "The jail is unable to handle the laundry needs of its inmates because of the volume and broken equipment. This results in a substantial risk of transmission of serious illnesses including diarrheal disease, boils and hepatitis A."

The lawsuit cited a May report by independent monitor Robert Greifinger, who said the jail is in a "state of crisis" with a growing risk for violence and transmission of disease.

Greifinger, a former medical director of the New York state Department of Corrections, has toured the jail 18 times in five years. His most recent visit prompted him to describe the jail as "scary."

Mike Mears, director of the state council that oversees public defender offices in Georgia, said the Fulton jail has more problems than most.

"I travel the state and I've been to a lot of jails, but I am always amazed at how poorly run the Fulton County Jail is," Mears said. "The Fulton County Jail, for a lot of different reasons, is deplorable. People get treated inhumanely because of the overcrowded conditions. It typifies the worst that can happen when a county lets a jail get out of control."

Chief Jailer Roland Lane agreed with Greifinger's findings and blamed 94 unfilled positions on a hiring freeze instituted by the county government. Often 200 to 300 inmates are supervised by one guard, Lane said.

Some critics say Barrett has to improve conditions at the jail despite the obstacles.

"She has a responsibility for people who are placed in that jail and that role is obviously not being performed properly," Mears said. "I assume that Judge Shoob is concerned about the safety and well-being of individuals being held in that jail who are innocent until proven guilty."

The jail routinely has 700 more prisoners than it was designed to hold. Such overcrowding has been cited as a factor in at least 10 escapes or mistaken releases of inmates in the last two years.

The most recent escape occurred June 18, when a female prisoner walked out of the jail while a rap video was being taped in another part of the facility. At least three deputies were suspended and a fourth, Sgt. Robert Sullivan, was fired Friday.

Barrett said the escape was not related to the taping of the video.

Shoob wants Barrett, at least one of the five county commissioners, Superior Court Chief Judge Doris Downs, State Court Chief Judge A.L. Thompson, District Attorney Paul Howard and Solicitor General Carmen Smith in his courtroom July 8 to explain why he should not replace Barrett, who has six months left in office, as custodian of the jail. Barrett is not running for re-election.

The judge's order makes it clear he does not plan to order the county to build a new jail.

If he removes the jail from Barrett's control, he would appoint someone to be in charge of the jail's budget, hiring and firing of staff and all operations until a new sheriff takes office in January. Barrett would continue as sheriff but would lose oversight of the jail, her biggest responsibility.

Barrett is already the subject of a federal investigation into $7.2 million of questionable investments she made with public money.

The sheriff also intervened last year in the prosecution of two aides, who were nevertheless convicted of stealing $25,000 worth of televisions and other equipment by charging them to a sheriff's office account, DeKalb Superior Court records show.

Fulton Solicitor General Smith declined to comment on Shoob's order Friday, and attempts to reach Downs and Thompson for comment were unsuccessful. Howard, the Fulton district attorney, said, "Obviously something has to happen" if the Greifinger report is accurate.

County Commission Chairwoman Karen Handel, who has called for Barrett to resign, said county officials should consider supporting the judge in appointing a temporary head of the jail. "It could right the ship and stabilize the situation in the jail," she said.
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