Legal Woes Mounting for Georgia Jail

Steven H. Pollak
Fulton County Daily Report
05-18-2004
 

The legal woes of the Fulton County, Ga., Jail continue to mount, with lawyers interviewing potential class members for one case, and another attorney asking for $17 million in a separate federal suit. 

In the second federal suit filed against Sheriff Jacquelyn H. Barrett over conditions at the jail, Snellville, Ga., attorney Ralph J. Villani alleges that his client, 44-year-old Napolean Victom, remained in the jail's holding cell five days after Magistrate Richard E. Hicks signed a release order. Victom v. Barrett, No. 1:04CV1140 (N.D. filed April 26, 2004). 

A call to Fulton County Attorney Overtis H. Brantley was not returned. A spokesman for the Fulton sheriff's department said the sheriff would not comment on pending litigation. 

Barrett, who said in April that she will not seek re-election this year, also faces potential legal action from a federal grand jury probe of her investments of $7.2 million in sheriff's department funds. 

According to a sheriff's department report created late last month in response to recent mistaken inmate releases, an increased jail population has led to delays in releasing inmates. 

The report said jail admissions have increased 29 percent since January 2003. At that time, Atlanta Mayor Shirley C. Franklin took the city out of the business of processing those charged with state crimes and Atlanta police began taking arrestees to the county jail rather than the city detention center. This led to a 27 percent increase in the number of people being processed out of the jail, the report said. So far this year, jail workers are releasing an average of 112 inmates per day. 

The jail staff's increased workload was compounded by the need to process arrestees within the time frame necessary to meet Riverside v. McLaughlin, 500 U.S. 44 (1991), requirements for first appearance hearings, according to the report. 

The increased workload also created a need for strengthening the process to prevent mistaken releases, the report said. Additional verification requirements in the computer clearance process led to an average of 27 minutes being added to each release. 

The sheriff's department report said the release backlog is also exacerbated by a "sluggish and outdated computer system" that can take up to three hours to clear an inmate for release. 

A "staffing intensive post-computer clearance process" -- which requires deputies to check off an inmate's paperwork and return his property -- also slows the process. The process can take one to six hours depending on staffing for the release checkpoints. 

To help alleviate the workload, Barrett last month converted 12 sworn detention positions into 17 civilian positions to perform admissions functions. But, the report noted, "current jail staffing cannot keep pace with the burgeoning volume of jail releases required to be out-processed with the legally required 'reasonable time' frame." 

SUIT ALLEGES KIDNAPPING 

Atlanta police arrested Victom March 3 on a charge of possession of cocaine and then transported him to the Fulton County Jail. 

According to the suit, Hicks signed the release order on the morning of March 11, but deputies never processed Victom out of the jail. The following day at Victom's all-purpose hearing at the jail, he was allowed to enter the Fulton County Drug Court pretrial diversion program but, again, was not released. 

On March 15, Villani said his client's friends and family contacted him to say Victom was still in jail. The attorney said he called the jail and discovered that his client had been kept in the holding cell for five days. 

After Villani's subsequent calls to Hicks and the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Robert D. Wolf, Victom was released later that evening. 

"Plaintiff contacted his appointed attorney [Villani] and informed him that, during the extra five days incarceration, he was locked up in a holding cell as described herein, he was harassed, intimidated, refused even the basic necessities, could not shower, could not go to the bathroom as often as needed (plaintiff had developed severe diarrhea which went untreated and which stained his clothes -- for which he was further punished and harassed) and, when he was released, spent over an hour scrubbing his body clean," Villani wrote in the complaint. 

Villani further stated that his client had been strip-searched seven times during his overdetention at the jail. 

In addition to false imprisonment, Villani added a charge of kidnapping to his suit, citing the jailers' use of force to move Victom from room to room against his will. 

In an interview, Villani said he may have additional suits coming. However, some "silk-stocking" firms are recruiting the same former inmates, he added. 

"There are a lot of cases out there," Villani said. 

PLETHORA OF POSSIBLE CLASS MEMBERS 

Meanwhile, the local counsel for the class action filed last month against the jail said they have interviewed 60 to 70 potential class members at their office. 

The case alleges that inmates were routinely kept in jail for several days after judges had signed their release orders. Attorneys also are protesting the practice of strip-searching inmates upon their return to jail from court appearances where they were sentenced to time served, released on signature bonds or had their charges dismissed. 

"We haven't found anybody who's been in the Fulton County Jail who doesn't qualify," said Charles B. Pekor Jr., one of the attorneys handling the class action. 

Pekor and his partner, Daniel E. DeWoskin, of Pekor & DeWoskin, are working on the case along with William Charles Claiborne III, a Washington lawyer who is licensed in Georgia, and Claiborne's brother, Augusta attorney James Patrick Claiborne. George Washington University Law School professor Lynn E. Cunningham and Los Angeles attorney Barrett S. Litt are expected to help with the case. Powell v. Barrett, No. 1:04CV1100 (N.D. filed April 21, 2004). 

Cunningham and William Claiborne have been litigating two cases against the Washington jail, the city of Washington and the U.S. Marshal's Service, which exercises joint custody of arrestees at the courthouse. Both cases are in mediation. 

Like the Fulton suits, the Washington litigation involves overdetention and strip-searches. 

Litt was the lead counsel for a similar group of class actions brought against Los Angeles County. Those suits resulted in a $27 million settlement for the inmates in 2001. 

JUDGE IN CLASS ACTION RECUSES 

The Fulton class action was assigned to Judge G. Ernest Tidwell, but he recused himself the day the suit was filed. Tidwell gave no reason for his recusal and a message left at his office was not returned. 

The case was reassigned to Judge J. Owen Forrester, who oversaw a class action against the Fulton County Jail that stretched over 12 years, from 1982 to 1994, and cost county taxpayers millions in legal fees. Fambro v. Fulton County, 713 F. Supp 1426. 

Forrester signed a final consent decree in that case in April 1994 after the two sides reached a settlement. The case was brought over conditions at the jail including lack of safety, lack of beds for inmates and lack of medical treatment.


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