Judge to rule on violations committed by Fulton County Sheriff's Office

by: Richard Elliot Updated:

A federal court judge will now decide if Fulton County and its Sheriff's office are in contempt of a consent decree to improve conditions at the jail after a jail monitor revealed three violations of that court order.

FULTON COUNTY, Ga. - A federal court judge will now decide if Fulton County and its Sheriff's Office are in contempt of a consent decree to improve conditions at the jail after a jail monitor revealed three violations of that court order.

Jail Monitor Calvin Lightfoot told Federal Court Judge Thomas Thrash at a hearing Wednesday that, in violation of the court order, not all the jail's faulty locks have been replaced, and that nearly 200 inmates continue to sleep on the floor outside cells and that the jail is dangerously understaffed.

"The jail is very dangerous," Lightfoot told the judge.

As a result, Thrash announced he will move forward with a contempt hearing in February involving both the Sheriff's Office and the Board of Commissioners.

Channel 2 Action News visited the Fulton County Jail last week and saw that the staff is in the process of replacing all the faulty locks, but also saw that some inmates are sleeping on plastic beds known as "boats."

Through his attorney, Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson acknowledged the violations, but said his office is working to repair those locks as quickly as possible. That, he believes, will help relieve some of the problem of inmates sleeping on the floor by allowing them back into cells. He also wants to send some of his overcrowding to neighboring county jails but needs county approval to do that.

"If we can do that, then we can work with the county on staffing which is a problem as the monitor said," said Jackson's attorney, Vaughn Dunnigan.

Dunnigan also added that the sheriff should not be held in contempt of the court order, because his staff is working hard to comply with it.

"The sheriff is in violation of the consent decree," said Dunnigan. "The sheriff is not in contempt, because you cannot be held in contempt if you make all reasonable efforts to comply with an order."

The biggest problem, said the monitor, is understaffing. He believes there should be three corrections officers on each floor along with a supervisor and someone in one of the watch towers. Dunnigan said the sheriff is not allowed to do any hiring himself, and that every new employee must go through the county's human resources office. That process, she said, can take up to seven months.

Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Stephen Bright represents the jail inmates. After the hearing, he said the understaffing makes the jail unsafe for everyone, inmates and officers.

"It concerns me a great deal, because the people sleeping on the floor, the understaffing means that it's a very unsafe facility," said Bright. "Somebody could be hurt bad. Somebody could be killed, and it could be somebody who works there, or it could be an inmate."

Thrash will hold the contempt hearing on Feb. 6 and 7. Until then, he urged both sides to resolve as many issues as possible.