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

ATLANTA – The US 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 Atlanta County’s main jail 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% of prison inmates are black.

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

Sheriff Pat Labat, who takes office in 2021, said he welcomes the investigation and stands ready to fully cooperate.

He has “publicly, privately and repeatedly raised concerns about dangerous overcrowding, ailing infrastructure and critical staff shortages at the prison,” he said in a statement. The best outcome of the investigation would be confirmation of his repeated claim that the main prison is not viable and a new prison is needed, Labat said.

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. “Following 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.”

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 in an email statement 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.”

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.” be.

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 “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 from 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.”

Labat said he contacted the Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections in September, asking for a security clearance and assistance. The institute recently “committed to conducting a full operational, programmatic and architectural assessment to address and mitigate these critical issues within the next 30 days,” he said.

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