A lawsuit waiting to happen

The Fulton jail's inept booking procedures could cost taxpayers millions

Among its other problems, the Fulton County jail is exposing county taxpayers to the threat of a class-action lawsuit that could make the $2 million that Sheriff Jackie Barrett "lost" on bungled investments — a blunder that caused county officials to call for her resignation — look like chump change.

Last week, CL revealed a chronic mess at the Fulton County Jail: a convoluted booking procedure that has kept inmates in jail for days after their scheduled release date. The procedure, which comes on the heels of a few high-profile accidental releases at the jail, has amounted to an over-correction of staggering degree. By keeping inmates days after they're supposed to be sent home, jailers are exacerbating the conditions at an already-overcrowded facility.

But most important, the excessive detentions are constitutionally forbidden and are opening up the county to the possibility of massive class-action lawsuits. In Washington, D.C., inmates of that city's jail are suing for being kept in jail for days after they were supposed to be released. In Los Angeles, several class-action lawsuits were lumped together and settled in 2001 for more than $27 million.

The L.A. case provides telling similarities to the situation in Fulton County. As in Fulton County, the L.A. sheriff is elected and his budget controlled by county lawmakers. As in Fulton County, the L.A. jail had mistakenly released prisoners and, as a result, had started screening inmates more carefully. As in Fulton County, those new procedures led to hundreds of inmates being kept for days longer than they were supposed to. Finally, county legislators in L.A. knew of the problem but, because they couldn't overrule the sheriff, left it up to him to handle.

The realities frustrate Karen Handel, Fulton County Commission chairwoman.

"This is a very serious issue," she says. "The sheriff and the other individuals [at the jail], they don't report to us. To some extent, we're at their mercy."

Barrett isn't talking. On Tuesday, she and her attorney, Mark Trigg, called a press conference to presumably discuss the latest controversy engulfing Barrett and the jail. At issue is $2 million of money from the sale of property tax liens that, county auditors say, Barrett illegally invested. The $2 million is still missing.

However, Barrett stood mute at the press conference, while Trigg assured the public that the sheriff will continue to "diligently and effectively perform her duties, as she has every day since she took office."

Seeing that, as sheriff, Barrett has presided over chronic overcrowding, case after case of inmate abuse, lousy jail conditions and plummeting morale — not to mention the missing $2 million — Trigg's assurances sent bullshit meters clanging across Fulton County.

For her part, Handel wants to convene an outside panel of criminal justice experts to analyze the jail from top to bottom. But such an undertaking would require the cooperation of Barrett and the jail — cooperation Handel doubts would be forthcoming.

In the meantime, county officials are working with the jail to reduce the time it takes for an inmate to be released from days to no more than six hours.

But with each day, there are more potential plaintiffs in a possible class-action lawsuit against the county. The Southern Center for Human Rights says it's still trying to determine the extent of the problem.

"We're very concerned about it," says Stephen Bright, the Center's director.

No matter what, the jail has violated the rights of inmates. How many? Bright's group estimates hundreds, at least.

In fact, it was the Center's lawsuit over the jail's treatment of HIV-infected inmates that led two years ago to some reforms at the jail. But the judge who presided over those reforms — Senior U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Shoob — says more has to be done.

"They need a new jail," he says. "That's the bottom line."

Shoob isn't surprised to hear about the excessive detentions happening now at the jail. Two years ago, he and another judge routinely ordered the release of inmates charged with misdemeanors who had been jailed for more than 10 days.

"It was practically a continuous effort," Shoob says. "On several occasions, we found people who'd been sitting in there for months who'd never been charged."

Asked about the prospects of another lawsuit against the jail, Shoob is unequivocal.

"I hope one is filed," he says. "Some judge is going to have to get in there again."