Lawsuit: Georgia jail conditions bad for mentally ill women

ATLANTA (AP) — Prolonged solitary confinement and harrowing conditions at a Georgia jail result in a substantial risk of serious psychological harm for mentally ill women held there, a federal lawsuit says.

Urine and toilet water pool on the floor of cells and meals of moldy sandwich meat are not uncommon at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City, the lawsuit filed Wednesday says. Lawyers have observed women in psychological distress lying on the floor, their bodies and the walls of their cells smeared with feces or food.

The women are subjected to harmful long-term isolation and those deemed incompetent to stand trial are denied mental health treatment provided to jailed men with similar mental health problems, the lawsuit filed against Fulton County Sheriff Theodore Jackson and four jail officials says.

Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Because of the policies and practices in place at the jail and the unsanitary conditions, mentally ill women held there “continue to face a substantial risk of serious psychological harm and indeed to suffer such harm on a regular basis,” the lawsuit says.

“That harm can result in dramatic worsening of symptoms, decompensation, psychosis, self-injury, and suicide,” the lawsuit says.

It was filed on behalf of two homeless women diagnosed with serious mental illness who are being held in isolation at the jail and the Georgia Advocacy Office, a private nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities. It seeks class-action status.

Because of their mental illness and psychological deterioration caused by the terrible conditions, some women lose the will or ability to clean themselves or their living areas, the lawsuit says. Many are unresponsive, while others mutter incoherently, the lawsuit says.

Photos included in the lawsuit show women huddled under blankets or, in some cases, without blankets because their bedding has been used to sop up water on the floor from leaking toilets. There are also pictures of cells strewn with trash and old food, feces and scum on shower mats, and messages written on the walls in food or feces.

One of the plaintiffs, identified in the lawsuit by her initials, M.J., is 20 years old and was arrested in October on a charge of criminal trespassing, accused of proselytizing at a shopping center and refusing to leave when asked. The other, identified as K.H., is 26 and was arrested in November on charges of criminal trespassing and prowling.

Both women have bonds set at $500 but remain in the jail because they can’t afford to pay. The charges they face usually carry little or no jail time if convicted.

They generally spend more than 23 hours a day in their cells and when they are allowed out, they spend time alone in the cell block dayroom and are deprived of meaningful social interaction and therapeutic activities, the lawsuit says. M.J. has tried to kill herself more than once, and K.H. has banged her head and face against the wall hard enough to require medical attention, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says many other women with mental illness have deteriorated psychologically while held in prolonged solitary confinement at the jail and includes descriptions of the situations of about a dozen other women identified by their initials.

“It is unacceptable in our modern era to isolate people with psychiatric disabilities in solitary confinement cells,” said Southern Center for Human Rights managing attorney Sarah Geraghty, who filed the lawsuit. “But to jail women charged with low-level misdemeanors in these conditions for months on end is particularly pointless and cruel.”

People found incompetent to stand trial can’t resolve their cases until their competency is restored. A competency restoration program at the main county jail offers a therapeutic environment with structured programming, counseling, therapy and group activities supervised by psychiatrists. But it’s only open to men.

Women found incompetent to stand trial have to wait months for a bed to open up at a state-run hospital, which means they have to wait much longer and spend more time in jail before resolving their cases, the lawsuit says.