The Justice Department is investigating prison conditions in Georgia’s most populous county

ATLANTA (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into prison conditions in Georgia’s most populous county. Officials cite violence, squalid prison conditions and the death last year of a man whose body was found covered in insects.

Investigators will look into living conditions, access to medical and mental health care, use of excessive force by staff and conditions that may lead to violence between people incarcerated in Fulton County jails, said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Department of Civil Rights Department of Justice during a news conference on Thursday. The county’s main jail is in Atlanta and has a long history of troubles.

“Our examination of these matters is guided by a fundamental principle: people held in jails and prisons do not give up their constitutional and civil rights at the prison door,” Clarke said, noting that the vast majority of people in prisons was not convicted.

Those being held in Fulton County are “predominantly people of color,” she said, adding that data shows 87 percent of prison inmates are black.

“This is a racial justice issue,” Clarke said.

In a joint statement, the Fulton County government and the sheriff’s office said they “will fully cooperate with the investigation.” Sheriff Pat Labat, who takes office in 2021, previously said the main prison had been “in crisis mode for decades” and called for a new prison to be built.

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Clarke cited the September death of 35-year-old Lashawn Thompson in a bedbug-infested cell in the psychiatric wing of the Fulton County Jail, noting that an independent autopsy conducted on behalf of his family found he was suffering from severe illnesses neglect died. Photos released earlier this year by lawyers for Thompson’s family showed his bug-covered body and a filthy cell strewn with garbage.

“These circumstances were anything but isolated,” Clarke said. “After Mr. Thompson’s death, evidence surfaced that the psychiatric ward where he died was infested with insects and that the majority of the people living there were malnourished and not receiving basic services.”

She said the Justice Department will also investigate “whether the Fulton County Jail discriminates against incarcerated people with mental disabilities.”

Clarke pointed out that Labat called Thompson’s death ruthless and acknowledged that the appalling conditions at the main prison “compromise the ability to provide basic security to all people at the facility.”

Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Thompson’s family, asked the Justice Department to investigate the jail in April. Michael Harper, another attorney for Thompson’s family, said via email that the family was “encouraged” by the Justice Department’s investigation.

“While nothing can undo the injustice Lashawn Thompson has faced, it is a tragedy that can hopefully lead to much-needed changes at the Fulton County Jail,” Crump and Harper said in a separate, joint statement. “We pray that the Justice Department will confirm the clear pattern of neglect and abuse in Fulton County and end it quickly so that no other family experiences this devastation.”

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The Southern Center for Human Rights, which has successfully sued the county over prison conditions on several occasions and wrote to Clarke in April demanding an investigation, welcomed Thursday’s announcement.

“This is a significant step toward reckoning with the lives that have been tragically and senselessly lost and the many people who continue to suffer rampant humiliation and abuse in Fulton’s prisons,” said Terrica Ganzy, executive director the nonprofit law firm, in a statement.

The Southern Center has criticized Labat’s calls for a new prison, saying it will not solve the problems. In the April letter, the organization said Labat had “demonstrated a clear inability to improve the conditions of the people currently in his care” and that human rights abuses in prison were “the result of a culture of cruelty and violence among staff”. .

The announcement of the investigation comes just two days after a 19-year-old woman died in her cell in Fulton County custody. Noni Battiste-Kosoko was being held in a section of the Atlanta City Jail controlled by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office when she was found lifeless in her cell on Tuesday and was pronounced dead by medical staff, the sheriff’s office said with a press release. She was alone in her cell and showed no obvious signs of injury, the statement said.

Calling the level of violence in Fulton’s prisons “deeply concerning,” Clarke said that “by sometime in 2022, prisons were averaging more than one stabbing per day.” Prison officials recently found more than 200 guns in the main prison and the sheriff said people were making “shots out of the crumbling walls” of the building, she said. Last year there were three suspected homicides in the main prison, she said.

Clarke was joined in the announcement by US Attorney Ryan Buchanan, who oversees the Northern District of Georgia.

“This investigation will be independent, thorough and fair,” Buchanan said. “We look forward to working with the Fulton County and Fulton County Sheriffs to advance the investigation as quickly as possible.”

A Justice Department civil rights investigation into Georgia’s state prisons, launched in September 2021, is ongoing.