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Old 08-13-2005, 10:46 AM
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Post Settlement of Fulton jail lawsuit close, costly

Settlement of Fulton jail lawsuit close, costly

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/13/05
Lawyers for jail inmates and Fulton County are close to settling yet another lawsuit over allegedly unsanitary and dangerous conditions at the jail. The agreement is expected to be expensive, costing taxpayers millions in renovations and new staffing.

As a draft of the proposed agreement reads now, the federal court will set minimum staffing and maximum inmate population levels at the jail, on Rice Street in northwest Atlanta. The settlement won't be final until after the County Commission approves it and a judge signs off on it.

As in previous lawsuits against the Fulton County Jail, a jail monitor will be hired, at $90 an hour, to ensure compliance with the order.

"There are three main subject matters: overcrowding, staffing and the jail facility," Fulton County Attorney O.V. Brantley said of the negotiations. "The jail improvements have been talked about for quite some time. We're just putting in writing what we thought should be done."

The Southern Center for Human Rights filed the suit in June 2004. "There are some minor things to work out, but basically we're there," said center Director Stephen Bright.

The final negotiations come when Sheriff Myron Freeman and the county are under intense pressure to improve jail and courthouse conditions. Critics say some security lapses that allowed Brian Nichols to allegedly kill a judge and three others on March 11 can be traced to problems at the jail. Overcrowding there has been a persistent problem, partly due to the backlog of cases at the courthouse, which judges are trying to address.

Lawyers say it could be fall before U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Shoob is asked to sign the settlement. Attorneys have negotiated for months, and only a few small changes are needed before the Fulton County Commission will consider approving the agreement.

Under the new settlement, the jail will again be under the control of the federal court. It's a road the county has traveled before with other lawsuits making similar claims.

"It's déjà vu all over again," said Ted Lackland, the private-practice lawyer who represents Freeman in the current negotiations.

The same complaints are being raised in lawsuit after lawsuit, Lackland acknowledged, "because solutions that were chosen [to settle previous cases] were not always long-term. We're trying this time to come up with solutions that are long-term."

Dr. Robert Greifinger, who has monitored ordered improvements at jails and prisons in 33 states, said it is all too common for conditions to decline once court supervision ends.

"There's no leadership. There's no investment," said Greifinger, who has monitored conditions at the Fulton jail for several years. "The only reason they make it work is . . . they are under court scrutiny."

Lawyers for inmates sued the county in 1982 over many of the same issues in this case: crowding, short staffing and unsanitary living conditions. In that case, the court ordered caps on the number of inmates in the jail, minimum staffing levels and better systems for temperature control and sanitation.

The county spent almost $45 million to build a new lockup, plus fees for lawyers and the monitor, fines and other improvements.

Twelve years later, the case was over and the judge was no longer watching over county officials' shoulders, because the county had complied with the judge's orders.

Within five years, the county was sued again.

The case the Southern Center for Human Rights brought in April 1999 initially focused on health care, but crowding soon became an issue. Shoob once again ordered the county to reduce the population at the jail, which was designed to hold 1,700 people when it opened in 1989 but has held as many as 4,300 prisoners at one time.

The medical care lawsuit was settled in January 2000, and two years later Shoob closed the case, though Greifinger was to inspect the jail through 2004.

Last year, the Southern Center filed another lawsuit, the one at issue today, once again citing crowded, unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

Bright brought the case in April 2004 for Frederick Harper, whom a guard allegedly knocked unconscious though the inmate was handcuffed. Bright said the jail conditions resulted in increased attacks on guards and inmates. The suit complained the facility was unsanitary. Inmates slept on the floor with three and four inmates in cells that were designed to hold one. Toilets overflowed, the jail was hot and had poor air circulation.

At the time the suit was filed, the jail and then-Sheriff Jackie Barrett were frequently in the news. In addition to jail escapes, Barrett was being investigated for questionable investments she made with jail funds, in a federal probe that is still open.

A few weeks after the Southern Center's latest suit was filed, Shoob took control of the jail from Barrett, putting a retired federal prison official in charge. Barrett later was relieved of the rest of her sheriff's duties because of the investment scandal, and she didn't seek re-election.

Now operating under a new sheriff, Bright says the jail appears to be safer, cleaner and more secure.

According to the draft agreement, major renovations at the jail must be completed within four years. Bright said the county is taking bids.

Proposed jail improvements include new cell-door locks, a new heating and air conditioning system and plumbing repairs to stop sewage from leaking into living areas. It's not known how much the improvements will cost, but the other big cost of the order will come in hiring additional staff and holding down the jail's prisoner population.

There area about 3,000 inmates in the main jail now, but the jail population will be capped at 2,250 inmates once the consent order is signed. And if the cap is exceeded for more than 20 consecutive days, the sheriff must find "alternative" housing for inmates, put them on house arrest or release them. The draft says inmates cannot sleep on the floor and there can be no more than two assigned to a cell; now they average three inmates to a cell.

The draft of the order calls for at least three guards and a supervisor per cellblock. Now the jail is operating with only one or two officers in a cellblock. If the number of inmates in a cellblock goes over 224, an additional guard must be assigned.

The sheriff must keep judges, prosecutors and the police apprised of the space available at the jail so they can make different decisions about bond or sentences if the lockup is too crowded. And the Georgia Department of Corrections, which also was named in the suit, must pick up inmates sentenced to state custody within 72 hours of getting paperwork from the courts.

"Maintaining sufficient personnel to meet these staffing levels 24 hours a day seven days a week is necessary for safety and security," the draft order says.

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