MSN Entertainment, Jul. 8
The last straw for the problem-plagued
Fulton County Jail came when an inmate escaped from a maximum-security
wing while guards were serving as extras during the making of a
rap music video behind bars.
Now a federal judge is expected any
day now to take away control of the jail from the sheriff and turn
it over to someone else because of widespread complaints that the
place is overcrowded, understaffed and badly run.
“This is as bad as it gets,”
said Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
“There are cells with toilets
that don’t work. There are people who are sleeping on floors
of the jail—floors that flood for various reasons.”
Bright filed a lawsuit on behalf of
an inmate alleging conditions at the jail—overfilled cells,
broken laundry facilities, poor ventilation, seeping sewage—amount
to cruel and unusual punishment.
It was Bright who asked for the removal
of Sheriff Jackie Barrett, who in 1992 became the first black woman
elected sheriff in the nation. And the sheriff has raised no objection.
The jail, which opened in 1989, holds
about 2,900 inmates, or more than twice the number it was designed
“It’s gross mismanagement.
There’s something new every week,” said Fulton County
Commission Chairwoman Karen Handel. She added that Barrett should
be able to handle the jail because she is given an $80.5 million
budget that allows for spending of $55 per inmate per day.
Problems at the jail have been growing
for years, but they drew more attention last month when an inmate
escaped while rapper Clifford Harris, known as T.I., was allowed
to use a maximum-security cell, guards and inmates as props and
extras for a music video.
The escaped inmate was a convicted
forger jailed on a parole violation. Wearing the blue medical scrubs
she had on when she entered the jail, she simply slipped out a door
for employees. She was caught six hours later at a gas station.
Ultimately, an internal investigation
concluded there was no connection between the escape and the video
shoot. Barrett, for her part, said she had not authorized the making
of the video, and she fired a jail supervisor and suspended three
others for their roles in the shoot.
“She has said she did not know
anything about it. That says she does not have direct supervision,”
said Harry Ross, a pollster and political strategist pushing for
Barrett’s resignation. “The morale is very, very low,
and people are basically making decisions without her knowledge.”
There have been many other incidents
at the jail in recent years, including a near-riot last August when
deputies tried to turn off an Atlanta Falcons football game before
it was over.
Last year, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin,
the black militant known in the 1960s as H. Rap Brown, and two other
inmates broke the locks in their maximum-security cells, cut a screen
and tried to break a window so they could lower themselves out of
the jail with a rope made of sheets. Al-Amin was caught and sent
to a state prison.
Also last year, two inmates crawled
through a ventilation shaft, slipped out a seventh-floor window
and climbed down bed sheets to freedom.
Barrett herself may face charges for
sinking $7.2 million in taxpayer dollars in a money-losing investment
fund and taking campaign contributions from businessmen who stood
to benefit from those investments.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has appointed a
panel to examine whether he should suspend Barrett, who has said
she will not seek re-election this year.
Barrett did not return a call Wednesday.
But her attorney, Ted Lackland, said the problems at the jail are
caused by inadequate funding, too few deputies, political feuds
and a clogged judicial system that creates overcrowding.
“It’s a systemic problem
in the criminal justice system. Each participant in that system
is partially responsible,” Lackland said. “What we’re
trying to do is move the conversation off a personality dispute
and into a problem-solving perspective.”
The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association
requested the governor’s investigation of Barrett but said
she may not be entirely to blame.
“You can do everything right
and still have major problems,” said Terry Norris, executive
vice president. “Operating jails is very complex.”