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Feds to investigate Georgia's Fulton County Jail for filthy, dangerous conditions

Fulton County Jail is seen on April 2, 2013, in Atlanta. The Justice Department announced that it has opened a civil investigation into the conditions at the facility.
David Goldman
Fulton County Jail is seen on April 2, 2013, in Atlanta. The Justice Department announced that it has opened a civil investigation into the conditions at the facility.

The Justice Department has launched a federal civil rights investigation into Georgia's Fulton County Jail — a facility described by the sheriff's office as "dilapidated and rapidly eroding" and where one inmate died covered in insects and filth.

Investigators have received "credible allegations" that inmates of the jail, one of Georgia's largest, are housed in a facility considered "structurally unsafe," that correctional officers are using excessive force and that violence is widespread, resulting in serious injuries and even murders, according to the DOJ.

The department's investigation, which is being done with the U.S. Attorney's office in the Northern District of Georgia, will examine those allegations as well as the inmates' access to mental and medical care and whether Fulton County and the Fulton County Sheriff's Office discriminate against inmates with psychiatric disabilities.

"People in prisons and jails are entitled to basic protections of their civil rights," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "We launched this investigation into the Fulton County Jail based on serious allegations of unsafe, unsanitary living conditions at the jail, excessive force and violence within the jail, discrimination against incarcerated individuals with mental health issues, and failure to provide adequate medical care to incarcerated individuals."

The DOJ will determine whether there are systemic violations of federal law and how to correct them if that's the case, Garland said.

This inquiry into the Atlanta-based jail comes almost a year after the death of Lashawn Thompson, 35, who died last September in a bedbug-infested cell in Fulton County Jail's psychiatric wing.

Thompson was in Fulton County Jail in Atlanta for three months before dying. An independent autopsy said his cause of death was "Complications due to Severe Neglect," with "Untreated Decompensated Schizophrenia" as a contributing cause.

A medical examiner who examined Thompson has said that he didn't receive necessary medical care or adequate food, water or shelter.

Individuals housed in jails are frequently not yet convicted, can't afford bail, are awaiting hearings or are serving short punishments for misdemeanors, according to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Clarke's office is leading the investigation.

A majority of inmates in the jail — around 87% — are Black making the alleged problems "a racial justice issue," she said.

She told reporters that she couldn't specify the length of the investigation, but said the issue is a priority for the department.

"The unconstitutional conditions that we see too often inside jails and prisons have no place in society today," Clarke said in a statement. "We are launching this investigation to determine whether Fulton County's treatment of people in the jail complies with constitutional standards. We are committed to ensuring jail and prison facilities provide constitutional conditions, in which all people can live safely and receive medical care. Incarceration should never include exposure to unconstitutional living conditions, including the risk of serious harm from violence."

Clarke's office is in the process of investigating a number of facilities including Georgia's state-run prisons and other institutions in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida and other states.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.