Civil rights lawyers have filed a suit in federal court against the Fulton County sheriff’s office alleging that women with psychological disturbances are being held for solitary confinement in filthy cells without access to the help provided to men in similar circumstances.
The Georgia Advocacy Office and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed the lawsuit seeking injunctive relief against Sheriff Ted Jackson and other officials charged with detaining women at the South Fulton Jail. The sheriff’s public information officer said Thursday by email, “We are reserving comment at this time due to pending litigation.”
“This is an action to protect some of the most vulnerable women in the Fulton County Jail system from serious psychological harm, cruel and unusual conditions of confinement, and invidious discrimination,” said the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia Atlanta Division Wednesday. “Defendants incarcerate over 200 women at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail, a facility in Union City, Georgia, used to hold women prosecuted in Fulton County courts. Many of those women—at least half, by most estimates—experience psychiatric disabilities. Neither staffed nor trained to manage the large number of detainees experiencing psychiatric disabilities, Fulton County jailers respond to symptoms of mental illness by confining women with psychiatric disabilities in isolation cells for months on end.”
The named plaintiffs are identified only as M.J. and K.H. The complaint said they are being held in isolation “solely because of their psychiatric disabilities.”
“Like many other women, M.J. and K.H. are charged with minor, nonviolent offenses, but they remain in solitary confinement indefinitely due to Defendants’ policies and practices,” the complaint said.
M.J. is a 20-year-old homeless woman, the GAO and the Southern Center said in a news release Thursday. She was arrested over five months ago on a charge of criminal trespass for allegedly refusing to leave the West End Mall when asked. She has a $500 bond but is unable to afford it. She is locked in what is called a “mental health pod” alone for over 23 hours a day on average, sometimes 24 hours for days on end, the Southern Center said. The complaint said isolation intensifies symptoms of mental illness.
The complaint said a recent tour of the jail revealed women kept in unclean cells, sometimes with toilets overflowing onto the floor. “Many are unresponsive. Some of those that do speak mutter incoherently,” the complaint said.
If the women are found incompetent to stand trial, they are held there indefinitely, while men in the same circumstances are offered assistance to recover, the complaint said.
“For male detainees only, Defendants offer a competency restoration program at the main jail facility, allowing men promptly to enter a therapeutic environment with full days of structured programming, counseling, and group activities supervised by on-site psychiatrists and other clinicians skilled in competency restoration,” the complaint said. “By contrast, women deemed incompetent to stand trial are not provided jail-based competency restoration programs. Instead, they are forced to languish in isolation cells for 23 to 24 hours per day while they wait for beds to open at one of the few state-run hospitals. This process can take many months due to a lengthy waiting list for the limited number of state hospital beds.”
“It is unacceptable in our modern era to isolate people with psychiatric disabilities in solitary confinement cells. But to jail women charged with low-level misdemeanors in these conditions for months on end is particularly pointless and cruel,” Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said in the news release.
“Society would never tolerate these conditions in any other setting,” Devon Orland, director of litigation at the Georgia Advocacy Office, said in the news release. “With a responsive community mental health system these women would likely have not ended up incarcerated. As long as they are held in this setting, the Defendants have a responsibility to ensure that they receive appropriate treatment in a humane environment.”