Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks Announcing Civil Rights Investigation into Conditions in the Fulton County Jail in Georgia
Remarks as Delivered
Good afternoon. As noted, I am joined today by United States Attorney Ryan Buchanan for the Northern District of Georgia.
We are here today to announce that the United States Department of Justice is launching a civil investigation into the Fulton County Jail in Fulton County, Georgia. This investigation will be comprehensive. We will examine living conditions in the Fulton County Jail, access to medical care and mental health care, use of excessive force by staff and conditions that may give rise to violence between people incarcerated at the facility. The investigation will also examine whether the Fulton County Jail discriminates against incarcerated people with psychiatric disabilities.
We are conducting this investigation pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. This federal law that authorizes the Department of Justice to investigate state institutions, including county jails, to determine whether incarcerated people are subjected to a pattern or practice of constitutional violations. We are also conducting our investigation pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which in this context mandates that incarcerated people with disabilities have same access to public services and benefits as non-disabled incarcerated people have. I’ll note that this month marks the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act – an important law that has implications for some detained in jails and prisons. Under the ADA, jail officials must provide access to services, benefits and programs to people with disabilities that is equal to what they provide to people without disabilities, and they may not discriminate on the basis of someone’s disability. This important law applies to incarcerated people, and it protects them from the harmful effects of disability discrimination and stigma.
Based on an extensive review of publicly available information and information gathered from stakeholders, we find significant justification to open this investigation. For example:
In September of 2022, LaShawn Thompson, an unhoused man with serious psychiatric illness, died in a cell in the main jail’s mental health unit, covered in lice and filth. A medical examiner that was hired by Mr. Thompson’s family has concluded that Mr. Thompson died of severe neglect. The Fulton County Sheriff has himself acknowledged that the circumstances of Mr. Thompson’s death are “unconscionable.” Those circumstances were far from isolated. Following Mr. Thompson’s death, evidence emerged that the mental health unit where he died was infested with insects and that the majority of people living in that unit were malnourished and not receiving basic care.
The Fulton County Sheriff has acknowledged that the main jail is “dilapidated and rapidly eroding” and that these conditions interfere with the ability to provide basic safety for all people in the facility. News crews have documented the exceedingly poor conditions of the main jail, airing footage of flooding inside housing units, large holes in interior walls of the facility and common areas filled with temporary bedding where people sleep at night.
The level of violence in the jails is deeply concerning, and at one point in 2022, the jails averaged more than one stabbing per day. A recent search by the sheriff’s office uncovered over 200 weapons inside the main facility. The sheriff reported that people are “crafting shanks from the crumbling walls” of the main jail.
There were three suspected homicides at the main jail in 2022, including one case where the victim’s body was reportedly concealed for hours before being found.
Two Fulton County detention officers are currently facing state charges resulting from their use of force at the jail, including an incident where the officer choked a female arrestee during the booking process at the Alpharetta Jail.
Our investigation into these matters is guided by one core principle – people held in jails and prisons do not surrender their constitutional and civil rights at the jailhouse door.
Fulton County includes the City of Atlanta and is the largest county in Georgia, with a population of more than one million people that accounts for over 10% of the state’s population. The people incarcerated in the Fulton County Jail are predominantly people of color, with data showing 87% of the jail population is Black. This is a racial justice issue.
We can’t ignore the unique role that local jails play in our criminal justice system. Indeed, there are over 3,100 jails in the country – about more than twice the number of state and federal prisons combined. Jails are the front door to our system of incarceration. Local jails house people during a vulnerable time in their lives. The vast majority of people held inside jails have not been convicted – they are awaiting bail hearings, competency evaluations and restoration services or are detained because of their inability to post bail. Some will see their charges dropped, or are waiting to be transferred to other jurisdictions, while others will await hearings in connection with their potential prosecution on criminal charges. Some are serving short sentences in connection with misdemeanor violations. Addressing conditions of confinement in our country requires focus on the conditions that exist inside our jails. Detention or incarceration in jail should not include exposure to unconstitutional living conditions that place lives in jeopardy or risk of serious harm from assaults. Jail facilities must provide constitutional and humane conditions, in which all people can live safely while they go through the criminal process.
I will note that the Civil Rights Division has a history of pursuing systemic reform not just in prisons but also at local jails across the country. In all of our work, we are focused on identifying the root causes of unconstitutional conditions of confinement so that solutions will be effective and longstanding. I want to highlight just a few recent examples of how our cases are seeking to transform conditions inside jails while addressing the systemic issues that can cause harm to human life, safety and bodily integrity:
In Cumberland County, New Jersey, we recently announced a proposed consent decree that would address the needs of incarcerated people with opioid use disorder and implement appropriate suicide prevention measures;
In the enforcement of our consent decree in Hampton Roads, Virginia, we are focused on harm from prolonged isolation;
Our investigation into the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda, California, also focuses on harm from prolonged isolation; and
In our San Luis Obispo County, California, findings report, we address the failure to prevent, detect or correct the use of excessive force.
In addition to these investigations into jails, we’re also actively investigating state prisons across the country, including Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, among other states.
The investigation of Fulton County Jail that we are announcing today reflects our commitment to safeguarding the rights of incarcerated people. Our investigation will be independent, thorough and fair. We have not drawn, and will not draw, any conclusions until our investigation is complete. If our investigation reveals reasonable cause to believe there is a systemic constitutional violation or a violation of the ADA, we will provide written notice to Fulton County and the Fulton County Sheriff of the violation, along with supporting facts, and we will identify the minimum remedial measures necessary. We will seek to work cooperatively with the county and sheriff to establish solutions to any problems that our investigation uncovers.
At the end of the day, addressing unconstitutional, unlawful and inhumane jail and prison conditions is a top priority for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
We are pleased to carry out this investigation with our partners at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia.
I’ll now turn the floor over to U.S. Attorney Buchanan, who will offer remarks.