Despite promises, Atlanta’s detention center lease is not saving lives  

By: Nolan Huber-Rhoades

On the evening of July 11, deputies from the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) found teenaged Noni Battiste-Kosoko dead behind the bars of a cell in the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC).  

A representative from the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) said that Battiste-Kosoko was a vibrant young woman who wanted to become a professional singer or dancer.  They also confirmed that because Battiste-Kosoko was a person with psychiatric disabilities, she was legally entitled to a set of protections and services as part of a protected class in jails run by the FCSO.  

Battiste-Kosoko, whose death occurred more than a year after Fulton County Sheriff Patrick “Pat” Labat entered a settlement agreement over a 2019 class-action lawsuit against the FSCO on behalf of women with severe mental illnesses incarcerated in Fulton County jails. While reviewing the investigation, U.S. District Judge William “Billy” Ray described the department’s treatment of incarcerated women with severe mental illness as repulsive.  

The settlement agreement, made April 12, 2022, required Sheriff Labat to implement modest improvements on the treatment and incarceration conditions of women with serious mental illness and created a protected class for all such women incarcerated in jails managed by the FCSO.  

While the conditions surrounding Battiste-Kosoko’s death remain unclear, Caitlin Childs, a senior investigator for SCHR said, “the Sheriff’s Office has continued to not comply with [the settlement] agreement in terms of ensuring that women with serious mental illness in their custody get out of their cell for a minimum of four hours a day, five days a week, and at least one hour, two more days a week.”  

By March 30, 2023, SCHR had enough evidence of the Sheriff’s non-compliance to file a contempt motion for material breach of the 2022 settlement agreement.  

“What we’ve seen is an extended period where Fulton County allows women to languish in their cells. And under those conditions, it’s no surprise that people would die,” said Childs. “Noni Battiste-Kosoko deserved to be in the community with the services and supports she needed to pursue her dreams and thrive. Instead, she was locked in a cell to die without the care she deserved.”  

A pattern of abuse and discrimination prompts DOJ investigation  

Battiste-Kosoko, is the second Black person with psychiatric disabilities to die within the last year while held pre-trial in one of the jails managed by the FCSO.

In September 2022, Lashawn Thompson died of dehydration, malnutrition, severe body infestation by lice and bed bugs, and untreated decompensated schizophrenia in the Fulton County Jail. An independent medical review conducted by Dr. Roger Mitchell J.R., the Chair of Pathology at Howard University, determined that Thompson’s death was a homicide caused by severe neglect in the Fulton County Jail.  

On Thursday, July 13, less than 24 hours after the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office released that Battiste-Kosoko died in their custody, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a Civil Rights investigation into conditions in the Fulton County Jail. Referencing the connection between Lashawn Thompson’s death and the ongoing conditions in the psychiatric wing of the main Fulton County jail on Rice St. According to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, there is evidence that most people in the psychiatric wing are malnourished and not receiving basic care. “Those circumstances were far from isolated, “ Clarke said.  

In a statement released in response to the DOJ investigation, Sheriff Labat publicly acknowledged that the “humanitarian crisis at the Fulton County Rice Street Jail is not new,” and blamed the crisis on “dangerous overcrowding, dilapidated infrastructure and critical staffing shortages.” According to Labat, the best possible outcome of the DOJ investigation is that it will confirm that “the Rice Street Jail is not viable, and a replacement jail is needed.”  

The humanitarian crisis in the Rice Street jail and beyond 

Sheriff Labat’s statement on the DOJ investigation suggests that the humanitarian crisis is unfolding solely in the main Fulton County Jail, commonly known as “Rice Street,” but problems exist outside the main jail facility.  

Battiste-Kosoko died while incarcerated in ACDC, and SCHR filed the 2019 class-action lawsuit over the negligent treatment of women incarcerated in the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail. Both jails are miles away from the Rice Street facility.  

The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office began overseeing incarceration at ACDC in December 2022, after the Atlanta City Council and Mayor Andre Dickens officially reneged on plans to close down ACDC—plans Mayor Dickens himself championed in 2019. Instead of closing the jail, city officials chose to rent 700 beds to the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office.  

Sheriff Labat and Mayor Dickens argued that leasing ACDC to Fulton County would alleviate the humanitarian crisis at the Rice Street facility. Members of the Atlanta community—including organizers, people formerly incarcerated in Fulton County Jails, human rights advocates, healthcare professionals, civil rights attorneys, clergy and families—warned Atlanta City Council that leasing ACDC to Sheriff Labat’s office would, according to an SCHR press release, “merely export these abuses to the city jail.”  

SCHR’s Childs led the investigation into allegations brought by women incarcerated by the Sheriff’s Office. The women alleged that the Sheriff’s Office was incarcerating women with psychiatric disabilities at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City under tortuous conditions. When Childs visited the jail, she found out that people had been “languishing in their cells, not coming out of them for weeks or months at a time.”  

Childs and other investigators observed women in distress, lying on the floor with their bodies and the walls of their cells smeared with feces or food. The investigation found that Sheriff’s Deputies left women completely alone for over 23 consecutive hours. One woman started to hallucinate after being isolated in her cell for weeks without a shower, exercise or a change of clothes. Another woman, Kesha Brownlee, died after swallowing a plastic utensil after months in solitary confinement.  

According to the 2022 settlement agreement, Battiste-Kosoko and other covered persons are entitled to, among other things:

  • At least four hours of out-of-cell time, five days a week (one hour of which must be recreation time) with an hour of out-of-cell time offered on the other two days of the week for people with severe mental illness.
  • Opportunities for meaningful therapeutic activities.
  • Access to clean drinking water, personal hygiene items, reading materials, a sufficient supply of clothing and underwear, and a quality control process so that people are no longer served moldy, spoiled food.
  • Training for correctional staff supervising people with severe mental illness; and  
  • A reliable tracking system and regular documentation to ensure people with severe mental illness are receiving the required out-of-cell time.

Investigations are underway to determine whether Battiste-Kosoko received all the court mandated out of cell time and services. “Unfortunately,” Childs said, “we are currently in contempt proceedings because Fulton County has continued to not comply with the settlement agreement.”  

Beyond the infrastructure  

At the time the deal was signed, Labat said the county’s lease of 700 beds in ACDC from the city of Atlanta would improve the overcrowding conditions at Rice Street jail and enable improvements in physical conditions across all county jails.  

Childs said that while conditions at Rice Street and the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail were an issue, the 2019 class action suit filed by SCHR was about the patterns and practices of the Sheriff’s Office and not about physical location.

Battiste-Kosoko’s death underlines the issue of patterns and practices by the Sheriff’s Office. The physical conditions in ACDC are far better than those of Rice Street or the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail.  

“The same people run the lives of the folks incarcerated at ACDC,” Childs pointed out, “the same medical and mental health care providers provide care at ACDC. So, it really just shifted people from one location to the other, but it didn’t really change anything in terms of the day-to-day lives of the folks in their custody.”

“Again, the settlement had nothing to do with the building.” Childs continued. “It had way more to do with ensuring that women got out of their cells, ensuring that women had access to psychiatric care, ensuring women had basic hygiene products, ensuring that they were not fed spoiled food. So, these are things that have nothing to do with a building. They have to do with the Sheriff’s Office and their patterns and practices.”

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One response to “Despite promises, Atlanta’s detention center lease is not saving lives  ”

  1. Tracy Abell Avatar

    I read about this earlier and felt that horrible mixture of sadness and rage. Thank you for highlighting this important story.

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