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Here's the lawsuit you ordered

Strip searches, overly long detentions lead to federal lawsuit

As if Fulton County Jail didn't have enough problems, this week it's getting slapped with a lawsuit that could ultimately involve thousands of inmates who were kept behind bars for days after they were supposed to be released. What's more, the lawsuit contends that those same inmates were often subject to illegal strip searches.

Both the over-detentions and the strip searches are the result of Sheriff Jackie Barrett's "deliberate indifference," according to a preliminary copy of the lawsuit, which CL received Tuesday, and which was expected to be filed in federal court by Wednesday.

"Barrett has known of the ineffective and chaotic condition of the Records Office inmate management system for years," the lawsuit claims.

Barrett, who announced Monday she won't run for re-election, is under federal investigation for the allegedly illegal investment of $7 million in county funds, $2 million of which has not been recovered.

In the lawsuit, William Claiborne, an attorney who's filed a similar suit against the Washington, D.C., jail, is seeking class-action status, meaning the case could expand beyond just the five inmates who are currently listed as plaintiffs. Such lawsuits can lead to big awards for plaintiffs; in Los Angeles, an over-detentions lawsuit led to a $27 million settlement in 2001.

The Fulton jail lawsuit comes on the heels of news stories in CL that illustrate pervasive delays at the jail when it comes to booking and releasing inmates. Too often, arrestees brought in on misdemeanor charges have their first court appearance before they've even been booked at the jail. In court, the judge often dismisses the charges, declares time served or orders arrestees released on a signature bond. But instead of walking out the courthouse door, the inmates are brought back to the jail, where they can look forward to being strip-searched and then locked back up — sometimes for days.

The reasons for the delay aren't known exactly, and Barrett isn't talking to the press. Some say the problems stem from inadequate staffing at the jail, others say from employee ineptitude.

Local defense attorneys agree, however, that the problem has become more acute in the past few months, after Barrett instituted a "zero tolerance" policy to prevent more high-profile accidental releases, which had plagued the jail over the last year.

Of the five men listed as plaintiffs, all were over-detained by at least two days. One man, David Evans, was held for 10 extra days, according to the lawsuit.

Mary Sidney Kelly, a paralegal and investigator with the Southern Center for Human Rights, compiled a chart of defendants booked into Fulton County Jail. Over a two-week period in March, her analysis shows, 214 inmates spent an average of almost three days in jail longer than they should have. In one case, an inmate wasn't released until 12 days after his scheduled release date.

The law is unclear as to how long jailers can hold onto inmates after they've been ordered released. Some court decisions have said a jail should release inmates the second a judge declares them free to go; others say a jail has up to 48 hours to clear up paperwork. But attorney Claiborne believes inmates should get "same-day service" — that is, they should be allowed to leave no later than midnight on the day they're supposed to be released.

"Let's say you're driving in your car and a policeman has a legitimate reason to detain you," Claiborne says. "He pulls you over, asks to see your license and runs a check on you. That's not illegal. But if the computer's down, he can't take you back to the station and hold you until the computer's back up. There's certain things you can do and certain things you can't do."

Claiborne says the strip searches are also a violation of inmates' constitutional rights. According to the lawsuit, the jail routinely herds a few dozen inmates into a holding room where they're told to take off all of their clothes. But a strip search, he says, can be conducted only on an individual basis and only based on the crime the inmate is accused of. The strip searches are made even worse when they're conducted on people who've already had charges dropped.

"That's just egregious," Claiborne says.

Ideally, inmates whose charges have been dismissed or who a judge has declared free to go would be released from the courthouse. But before that can happen, he says, the jail needs to gets its inmate management system in order.

"It's all on the jail right now."

Jail spokesman Lt. Clarence Huber had not seen the lawsuit as of Tuesday afternoon and so could not comment.

steve.fennessy@creativeloafing.com