Federal Judge Orders Contempt Hearing Over Fulton Jail Conditions

Nov 26, 2013

Lawyers for the Fulton County Jail inmates argue faulty cell-door locks, pictured above, cause dangerous conditions at the Rice Street facility.
Credit Lisa George/WABE

A federal judge is ordering the Fulton County board chairman and sheriff to appear in court over contempt charges, the latest development in a nearly decade-long legal effort to bring Fulton County Jail into compliance with a consent order.

Chairman John Eaves and Sheriff Ted Jackson will have to explain why the county shouldn’t be held in contempt of court for not meeting the standards set forth in a February 2006 consent order.

“Conditions are dangerous for all of the people who are currently incarcerated in the jail, and it can’t wait for the defendants to ameliorate things months from now,” said Melanie Velez, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “It needs to happen today.”

In 2004, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all Fulton inmates, alleging overcrowding, understaffing, faulty locks and overall dangerous conditions at the jail. The case was settled in December 2005, and in the 2006 consent order, the county agreed to cap the inmate population at the Rice Street facility at 2,500, establish minimum staffing levels and ensure cell doors had functioning locks.

Velez said since then the jail population has occasionally exceeded that limit, forcing inmates to sleep on temporary bedding on the floor; that staffing is still low and that locks are still not in compliance.

“Despite the gains that have been made over the years, we’re right back to dealing with the same core issues that fueled this litigation in the first place,” Velez said.

In a response to the contempt charges filed last month, lawyers for the county didn’t deny those claims. However, they argued the board of commissioners can’t be held in contempt because it has provided the necessary funding put the jail in compliance, and that enforcement is not its responsibility.

And the sheriff argues he shouldn’t be held in contempt, citing lack of funding and cooperation from the board. Jackson argues the board’s recent decision to eliminate funding to outsource inmates to other jails has led to overcrowding.

District Court Judge Thomas W. Thrash has rejected those arguments, and in his order said both parties will have to prove they’ve made all reasonable efforts to comply with the 2006 settlement.

“The defendants do not seriously dispute the plaintiffs’ factual allegations. Instead, they argue that a show cause order should not issue because they cannot legally be held in contempt. The court finds the defendants’ arguments without merit,” wrote Thrash, adding that both the sheriff and the board are “jointly responsible for compliance.”

In a statement Tuesday, Eaves defended the board’s funding of the sheriff’s office.

“As the County has pointed out in numerous Court filings, Fulton County is responsible for adequately funding the Jail and its Justice Partners.  We believe we have exceeded that responsibility,” Eaves said. 

But in an interview with WABE in October, Eaves admitted the jail wasn’t fully in compliance, but that conditions were improving.

“To me we’re on the brink of fully satisfying all of the requirement that were specified by the judge, and that’s what I’m focusing on now, is making sure that we’re 100 percent compliant, and we’re almost there,” Eaves said.

Eaves said staffing was still an issue because of attrition and didn’t deny some inmates were sleeping on the floors. He said the latter was temporary while the jail put in new locks, installation of which will be completed in spring.

A hearing date hasn’t been set, though a status conference is scheduled for Dec. 8. The judge writes the hearing will be held in the near future.