Sep 7, 2023 - News

As Fulton jail deaths mount, activists push for other solutions

Fulton County jail's main entrance

An officer stands at an entrance to the Fulton County Jail. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The conditions at the Fulton County Jail are past the tipping point and while Sheriff Pat Labat argues that a new facility is sorely needed, community activists say a new building with a larger footprint is not the answer.

Driving the news: Another inmate has died in custody at the Rice Street facility. The Sheriff's office said on Wednesday that 24-year-old Shawndre Delmore, who was found unresponsive in his cell last Thursday, died Sunday at Grady Memorial Hospital.

Why it matters: Many detainees who are held at the Fulton County Jail can't afford to post bond, which means they remain behind bars before their cases go to trial. Delmore was held on a $2,500 bond since his April 1 arrest, the Sheriff's office said.

  • "So, they are functionally trapped in that jail," said Devin Franklin, movement policy counsel with the Southern Center for Human Rights. "They cannot get out, not because they're dangerous, but because they're poor."

What they're saying: Last week, a mass stabbing resulted in the death of another inmate, 23-year-old Dayvion Blake, and injured three others.

  • Labat says last week's stabbing isn't surprising, "considering the long-standing, dangerous overcrowding and the crumbling walls of the facility that are literally being crafted into makeshift weapons that inmates use to attack each other and staff."
  • Labat, who wants the county to construct a new jail, said the Sheriff's office is negotiating with other agencies to use their space to house Fulton inmates.
  • He also they are leveraging more resources to help increase the frequency of efforts to "seize contraband."

The other side: Franklin told Axios that while he doesn't disagree with the jail's physical state, he said the "humanitarian crisis" there stems from the detention center's culture.

  • "No one has died because the building is falling apart," he said. "People have died because they do not care for the people in custody as the constitution of Georgia requires them to do."

State of play: Ten detainees have died so far in 2023. Six of those deaths occurred within the last two months.

  • On Aug. 22, 34-year-old Samuel Lawrence petitioned a federal court for relief, detailing the excessive force he was subjected to and alleging deputies stood by while other detainees attacked him.
  • He died four days later.

Context: The Department of Justice announced a civil rights investigation into the Fulton County Jail in July, after LaShawn Thompson, a detainee with mental illness, was found dead and covered in bug bites inside a cell last September.

By the numbers: As of Wednesday, the Sheriff's office had a total of nearly 4,000 inmates.

  • 2,530 of those inmates are housed at Rice Street, more than its capacity of 2,254 people, according to the agency's app.
  • The remaining detainees are housed in other facilities and in counties where they have holding agreements.

Threat level: Other factors driving overcrowding are at play, including prosecutors asking for high cash bond amounts to gain pretrial release.

  • Coupled with that, detainees who can't bond out of jail often wait months or years before their cases go to a grand jury for indictment due to a backlog of cases, according to Color of Change, a racial and social justice organization.
  • The organization will send letters to District Attorney Fani Willis and Solicitor General Keith Gammage today, asking them to focus their efforts on clearing the backlog and consider offering signature bonds in place of cash.

The bottom line: While the jail is facing a "massive crisis," according to Moki Macias, the executive director of Atlanta's Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative, people from all areas of the criminal justice system are responsible for reducing the number of inmates held there.

  • "Pretrial release should be treated as the imperative given the conditions at the jail," Macias told Axios. "People should not be held in those conditions in order to respond to the charges against them."
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