Sheriff agrees to improve detention conditions to settle lawsuit

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ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia sheriff has agreed to improve the conditions of confinement for women with serious mental illness to settle a lawsuit alleging that prolonged solitary confinement and unsanitary conditions risked causing them serious psychological harm.

Lawyers who visited the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail saw women in psychological distress lying on the floor, their bodies and cell walls smeared with feces or food, the class action lawsuit said. There were puddles of urine and toilet water in the cells and meals of moldy sandwich meat were not uncommon, the suit said.

U.S. District Judge William Ray on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to the settlement agreement signed by Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat and attorneys for women with psychiatric disorders held at Union City Jail at approximately 29 miles southwest of Atlanta. Ray has scheduled an equity hearing on March 16 to hear any objections or comments from women who will be covered by the settlement before granting final approval.

The lawsuit was filed in April 2019 on behalf of imprisoned women with serious mental illness held in solitary confinement at the jail and the Georgia Advocacy Office, a private nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities.

The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights, said the women typically spent more than 23 hours a day in their cells and when they were allowed out, they spent time alone in the cell block common room and were deprived of meaningful social interaction and therapeutic activities. Many women with mental illness deteriorated psychologically while in solitary confinement, according to the lawsuit.

“The damage caused by the lack of mental health services in the community is compounded by the ongoing harm done to people with psychiatric disorders who are untreated and subjected to further abuse while incarcerated,” said Devon Orland of the Georgia Advocacy Office in a press. Release. “We appreciate that the Sheriff has taken responsibility for ensuring that people within South Fulton Jail are released from their cells and receive treatment.”

The settlement agreement filed with the court in November says women will be allowed at least four hours outside their cells five days a week, with at least one of those hours including access to a yard or gymnasium when the weather is bad. On the other two days of the week, they will be allowed at least one hour of out-of-cell time.

Prison staff must also keep records of the exact times women are offered out-of-cell time and the exact times they return to their cells, the agreement says. This information should be included in a report sent to the women’s lawyers every two weeks.

Women should also have access to out-of-cell therapeutic activities – such as medication management, art therapy, music therapy, group counseling, meditation and personal hygiene – at least five days a week for at least two hours a day.

Women should also have regular access to reading materials, clean drinking water, toiletries and personal hygiene items, and the ability to shower at least once a day. , a daily change of uniform and underwear, as well as a clean towel and bedding each. week, says the agreement. Nor should they be served sour, stale or moldy foods.

The prison staff who supervise the women targeted by the agreement must be specially trained to work with people with a mental impairment.

Ray previously issued an order in July 2019 that directed the then sheriff to address concerns raised in the lawsuit.

Labat, who took office in January 2021, said he is committed to taking steps to improve the quality of life for those housed in the prison while ensuring his staff can run a secure facility.

“We are continuing the important work of improving prison conditions, working closely with experts in the field of mental health and corrections,” he said in an emailed statement. “As a result of this work, the conditions of mentally ill inmates at the South Annex have improved dramatically since this litigation began.

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