ATLANTA -- A Georgia sheriff has agreed to improve jail conditions 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 witnessed women in psychological distress lying on the floor, their bodies and the walls of their cells smeared with feces or food, the class action lawsuit said. There were pools of urine and toilet water in cells and meals of moldy sandwich meat weren't 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 lawyers for women with psychiatric disabilities held at the jail in Union City, about 18 miles (29 kilometers) southwest of Atlanta. Ray has scheduled a fairness hearing for March 16 to hear any objections or comments from women who will be covered under the settlement before granting final approval.
The lawsuit was filed in April 2019 on behalf of the imprisoned women with serious mental illness being held in isolation at the jail and the Georgia Advocacy Office, a private nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities.
The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights, said the women generally spent more than 23 hours a day in their cells and when they were allowed out, they spent time alone in the cell block dayroom and were deprived of meaningful social interaction and therapeutic activities. Many women with mental illness had deteriorated psychologically while held in solitary confinement, the suit said.
"The damage caused by the lack of mental health services in the community is compounded by the ongoing harm caused to people with psychiatric disabilities who are not treated and subjected to further abuses while incarcerated," Devon Orland of the Georgia Advocacy Office said in a press release. "We appreciate that the Sheriff has taken responsibility for ensuring that people within the South Fulton Jail are allowed out of their cells and are provided treatment."
The settlement agreement filed with the court in November says the women shall 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 to a gymnasium when the weather is bad. On the other two days each week, they shall be allowed at least one hour of out-of-cell time.
Jail staff must also maintain records of the exact times the women are offered out-of-cell time and the exact times when they return to their cells, the agreement says. That information is to be included in a report sent to the women's lawyers every two weeks.
The women shall also have access to out-of-cell therapeutic activities -- like medication management, art therapy, music therapy, group counseling, meditation and personal hygiene -- at least five days a week for at least two hours each day.
The women must also have regular access to reading material, adequate clean drinking water, toiletries and personal hygiene items, as well as the opportunity to shower at least once a day, a daily change of uniform and underwear, and a clean towel and bedding each week, the agreement says. They also shall not be served food that is soured, expired or moldy.
Jail staff who supervise the women covered by the agreement must be specially trained to work with people with psychiatric disabilities.
Ray had previously issued an order in July 2019 that instructed the sheriff at the time to address the concerns raised in the lawsuit.
Labat, who took office in January 2021, said he's committed to taking steps to improve the quality of life of the people housed in the jail while also ensuring that his staff can run a secure facility.
"We continue the important work of improving jail conditions, working closely with experts in the field of mental health, and correctional services," he said in an emailed statement. "Through this work, conditions for mentally ill detainees at the South Annex have improved dramatically since this litigation began."