Georgia Sheriff Argues Against Order Requiring Better Jail Conditions

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

ATLANTA (CN) — An attorney for a Georgia sheriff asked an 11th Circuit panel Wednesday to overturn an order ending a jail’s policy of holding mentally ill women in solitary confinement up to 24 hours a day in disturbing conditions.

Ashley Palmer of the Fulton County Attorney’s Office told a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-appeals court that the lower court overstepped its authority by requiring Fulton County Sheriff Theodore Jackson and South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail officials to offer mentally disabled prisoners held in solitary confinement at least four hours of out-of-cell time per day. 

Women in the jail with serious mental illness are segregated from the general population and held in so-called mental health pods for solitary confinement. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Britt Grant, a Donald Trump appointee, called the allegations regarding conditions inside the pods “pretty horrific” during Wednesday’s hearing.  

Devon Orland, an attorney for the nonprofit Georgia Advocacy Office, the lead plaintiff in the case, detailed the “repulsive and shameful” environment inside the jail, telling the panel that women with serious psychiatric disabilities were left in their cells for weeks or months on end. 

“The cells were covered in bodily fluids, rust and mold. In these conditions, they deteriorated, leaving them incoherent, screaming unintelligibly, laying catatonic, banging their heads against walls, and repeatedly attempting suicide,” she said. 

Orland noted that the defendants in the case have not disputed evidence put forth by experts that the jail was unsafe and unhealthy. 

Photos taken during an inspection allegedly show garbage strewn around the cells, toilet water on the floor, a trail of urine flowing from a cell door, feces and blood on the walls, bloody clothes and underwear in the common area, toilets full of garbage, and women lying on their cell floors. 

The Georgia Advocacy Office filed a federal class action against Sheriff Jackson and four jail officials on behalf of the inmates in April 2019, claiming prolonged solitary confinement violates the Eighth and 14th Amendments, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. 

The sheriff and jail officials have not disputed evidence that solitary confinement is known to exacerbate mental illness.  

U.S. District Judge William Ray II, a Trump appointee, ordered officials in July 2019 to track each inmate’s cell time and allow them four hours out of their cells at least five days each week. Officials were also ordered to establish a plan for providing sanitary conditions of confinement and out-of-cell therapeutic activities to each inmate in the pods at least five days a week. 

Palmer argued Wednesday that the judge should have given the sheriff and jail staff the opportunity to come up with their own remedy for the situation. She told the panel that Ray’s order required the reallocation of jail funds and an “upheaval” by jail staff. 

“[Courts] owe wide-ranging and substantial deference to the decisions of prison administrators because of the complexity of prison management. The fact is that that responsibility is necessarily vested in prison officials and courts are ill-equipped to deal with such problems,” Palmer told the panel. 

She added, “A court is not in a position to be able to say what happens on a day-to-day basis, especially in such a fluid environment as a jail.” 

But U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson, a Bill Clinton appointee, pushed back on that argument saying it was his understanding that the order “provides a safety valve for the sheriff to ensure deference to jail administrators when it’s necessary for a penological purpose.” 

Palmer said the so-called safety valve is “very limited in scope” and that provisions built into the judge’s plan impose onerous processes on jail staff.  

“Congress has placed strict limits on remedial relief that a court may impose on a jail or a prison. It must be narrowly drawn and not intrusive. Here, the court went too far in dictating to the sheriff how he should remedy the alleged constitutional violations,” she said.  

Palmer also told the panel that the injunction expired and cannot be revived because Ray did not make his order “final.”

But Orland said that interpretation was based on a misunderstanding of the law.  

“If in fact the intent [of the Prison Litigation Reform Act] was to eliminate a preliminary injunction within 90 days, then Congress would’ve said after 90 days the court must enter a permanent injunction,” Orland said. 

Grant and Wilson were joined on the panel by Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat, a Gerald Ford appointee. The panel did not indicate when it will reach a decision in the case. 

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