Jail deaths raise questions

In the past month, three inmates have died inside the notoriously troubled Fulton County Jail, and a watchdog group of lawyers has begun investigating whether the deaths might be tied to lapses in oversight.

It's been a challenging few years for the jail. The Fulton County Sheriff's Department remains under a federal mandate to improve the facility's dilapidated condition and stave off the inmate-to-inmate spread of disease. The Fulton County District Attorney's Office has probed claims of inmate abuse by deputies. The mistaken release of alleged felons permitted one escapee to rape an Atlanta woman before his recapture. And in a somewhat humorous turn, a rap video was filmed on the jail's seventh floor - unbeknownst to jail officials.

"[The county] needs to bite the bullet and start major projects to improve the jail," says Steve Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which investigates prison and jail conditions in the Southeast. "And the deaths certainly raise some questions."

Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Sgt. Nikita Adams-Hightower says three deaths in a month aren't uncommon, considering the jail holds thousands of inmates.

On May 19, 17-year-old Antonio Merritt died minutes before he was to be released. Days earlier, he'd posted bond on an animal cruelty charge (he was arrested for shooting a dog in the leg, according to an Atlanta Police report). Adams-Hightower says Merritt's cellmate told jail officials that Merritt jumped down from his top bunk to leave and started convulsing.

"His roommate said it looked like he was having a seizure," Adams-Hightower says. "But we don't know for sure until the autopsy report comes back."

Adams-Hightower says Merritt appeared to be healthy prior to his release. The sheriff's department has launched an internal investigation into the teenager's death.

Two weeks earlier, on May 6, inmate William Tommy Goss hung himself, according to Bright. Goss, 24, had been booked into the jail in February on a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespassing at a coffee shop. An Atlanta Police report states that Goss, who was warned by police on a previous occasion not to loiter around the Caribou Coffee on Piedmont Road, "was acting irrational, waving his arms and hands at customers."

Bright claims Goss "had some mental health problems" and was on suicide watch when he hung himself. However, Adams-Hightower claims Goss wasn't on suicidal watch and was on a regular floor when his death occurred.

Goss sat in jail awaiting trial for three months because he couldn't make his $500 bond, according to Bright.

Adams-Hightower confirmed that another inmate died April 28. She wouldn't release any details.

The three deaths come at the one-year anniversary of a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Center. The suit claims the jail, designed to hold 1,300 inmates, was holding more than 3,000. The suit also alleges understaffing, breakdowns in plumbing and ventilation systems, and poor bookkeeping that resulted in detainees being kept for days past their release dates.

Bright says that few if any of the problems have been resolved, not even the bookkeeping one. According to Bright, Merritt was scheduled to be released May 16 - three days before he died.

"There's just no excuse for this," Bright says.

A previous lawsuit filed in 1999, also by the Southern Center, led to drastic reforms at the jail after a federal judge ordered the sheriff's department to improve conditions, particularly medical care for HIV-positive inmates. Bright says that as a result of the judge's order, conditions at the jail improved.

But now, he says, "[the conditions] are gradually moving right back to where they were."

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