After denying inmates ‘life necessities’, Muscogee Jail no longer under DOJ oversight

After 20 years the jail in Muscogee County is no longer is under federal monitoring

Twenty years after Columbus and the Department of Justice agreed to federal monitoring of the Muscogee County Jail, the civil rights claim requiring periodic inspections has been dismissed.
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Twenty years after Columbus and the Department of Justice agreed to federal monitoring of the Muscogee County Jail, the civil rights claim requiring periodic inspections has been dismissed.

Twenty years have passed since the U.S. Department of Justice sued Muscogee County over jail conditions so unsafe and unsanitary they violated inmates’ constitutional rights.

For two decades the county has worked under Justice Department supervision to correct a multitude of issues threatening the health, safety and security of those housed in the Muscogee County Jail.

Now that oversight has come to an end.

In a consent agreement approved this past July, the U.S. District Court dismissed Justice Department claims the jail violates inmates’ constitutional rights, ending the federal monitoring that required twice-yearly inspections to ensure the facility made steady progress in correcting its deficiencies.

“Obviously, we’re very pleased to have it behind us,” said City Attorney Clifton Fay.

“We are in compliance after 20 years, and that’s a very good thing,” said Sheriff Donna Tompkins, who took office in 2017 after serving about 30 years in the sheriff’s department. The sheriff by law is responsible for running the jail.

Still the facility has issues with overcrowding and an influx of mentally ill inmates requiring extra care, and Tompkins has proposed it be expanded to accommodate those needs.

Also the complex requires constant and sometimes costly maintenance to meet its constitutional obligations, lest it fall back under federal oversight.

The beginning

The Justice Department started investigating jail conditions here in October 1994. On Dec. 1, 1994, it sent a team of lawyers and consultants to tour the facility.

On June 1, 1995, it mailed then-Sheriff J.E. “Gene” Hodge a letter outlining findings from the inspection, which “detailed numerous constitutional deficiencies affecting the life, health, and safety of inmates in the jail,” according to court records.

When the city government failed to correct those issues, the Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit on Sept. 23, 1999, based on the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980. That law authorizes the U.S. Attorney General to file suit upon finding people held in confinement are subjected to “egregious or flagrant conditions which deprive such persons of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution.”

The 1999 suit cited numerous issues that included inadequate security, staffing, housing, medical, dental and mental health care; unsanitary and unsafe conditions that placed inmates at “undue risk of harm from fires”; insufficient inmate access to the courts and to exercise; and failure to implement policies to ensure the jail’s safe operation.

The lawsuit noted that none of this was news to the sheriff or the other city leaders responsible for funding the facility. They allowed the jail’s issues to continue “despite notice from the United States, recommendations from the United States, the results of a local grand jury investigation, actual knowledge of the deficiencies, and the obviousness of the deficiencies,” the suit said, adding:

“Defendants’ deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of Muscogee County Jail inmates has deprived those inmates of basic life necessities, exposed them to unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and placed them at undue risk of harm.”

The first pact

At the same time it filed the lawsuit, the Justice Department offered a joint settlement agreement through which the county would pledge gradually to bring the jail up to constitutional standards under the department’s oversight.

Approved Sept. 30, 1999, the consent agreement promised the city would take these corrective actions:

  • Repair or replace plumbing, electrical, lighting and ventilation systems.
  • Expand the jail kitchen or contract out the food service.
  • Provide adequate space for a medical clinic and for inmate isolation under medical care.
  • Add space to provide safe and humane inmate housing with bedding that is off the floor and away from exposed plumbing or wiring.
  • Institute professional standards for staffing and provide a handbook of jail procedures for inmates.
  • Document the use of force against inmates and train staff in de-escalation techniques to avoid violent confrontations.
  • Give inmates opportunities for exercise, and access to legal research.
  • Screen inmates for medical issues such as allergies, drug dependency, mental illness and communicable diseases, and provide emergency care and mental health treatment in an appropriate environment.
  • Eliminate fire and electrical hazards and exterminate pests to ensure a safe, sanitary environment.

The county was not expected to solve all the jail’s problems overnight. Because of the “systemic and comprehensive nature” of the 30-page agreement, the corrective action would take place “over a number of years,” it said.

Regular Justice Department inspections, along with mandatory reporting from the sheriff, would ensure the work stayed on track.

“They’d send field experts in the early days,” Chief Deputy Troy Culpepper recalled Wednesday. “It would be an entourage. One person might be an expert over constitutional law and jails and administration, and you’d have a fire expert, and all that person did on inspection was check your fire codes.”

Gradually the jail resolved specific issues that no longer required monitoring.

“In the last several years especially, kind of like piece by piece, they began to say, ‘OK, you clearly have this under control,’” Sheriff Tompkins said. “For example: ‘We know that you’re cleaning regularly, so we’re not going to keep coming back to that one. You’ve shown us you handled that.’”

The second pact

Back in 1999, the jail had a capacity for more than 800 inmates in three buildings, the 19th century brick Stockade on 10th Street, the 1984 tower now called the “North Tower,” and the “old jail” at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street, built in 1939.

The old jail had so many issues it was soon determined unfit for habitation. It was emptied and used for storage after the city expanded the complex with what’s now called the South Tower, built in 2002. The jail’s overall capacity increased to 1,069.

After Justice Department inspections in the fall of 2011 and in September 2012, federal authorities determined the jail had made “considerable progress” in providing adequate security, environmental health and medical care.

“Significant concerns remain, however, in the provision of mental health care,” they wrote.

So, on Jan. 15, 2015, the city and the Justice Department signed a new consent agreement focused on treating inmates with serious mental illnesses.

The 24-page agreement required the jail to screen all inmates and compile treatment plans for individuals diagnosed with a mental illness, to have professionals on-call around the clock for emergencies and on-site staff for more routine monitoring, to train personnel in suicide prevention, to update use-of-force policies, and to provide segregated housing for those too ill to be among the general jail population.

Asked why dealing with that issue was so challenging, Tompkins said the jail was swamped with mentally ill inmates when the state shut down its treatment centers, such as Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, which stopped taking new patients in 2010.

In October 2017, Justice Department inspectors determined the jail had met all the standards set for treating mentally ill inmates. But that did not end their oversight., because the county had to prove it could maintain that for two more years.

On July 1, the county and the Justice Department filed a joint motion to end the settlement agreement, and to dismiss the civil rights case. U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land signed it three days later.

What’s next?

The jail on any given day now has up to 400 inmates diagnosed with some form of mental illness, and Tompkins does not believe that’s going to improve, or that the state will provide any relief.

So the county will pay when they wind up in jail.

On Wednesday she took reporters for another look at the 1939 jail, now used mostly for storage, and partly as a gym for employees. She and other staff compare the Depression-era building to the death-row jail depicted in the movie “The Green Mile,” because of its age and deterioration.

The 1939 jail is dark, cramped, hot and dirty, and still has the old bars and heavy metal doors once typical of such facilities. It had a capacity for 250 inmates, but often held many more.

Tompkins can recall times when the jail complex held 1,300 to 1,400 inmates, before its 2002 expansion.

Now that the old jail is no longer suitable for housing inmates, she wants to tear it down, and on that site build housing and treatment facilities for the mentally ill, who currently are spread out among the other buildings, if they don’t require individual confinement apart from the general jail population.

“I would like to be able to consolidate some of those services into one area,” she said.

Voters approved a sales tax for the expansion in 2008, but that project was deferred when the jail population later dropped.

The jail no longer is subject to periodic Justice Department inspections, but that doesn’t mean its problems end there. “If you don’t continue to address them, you will eventually lag behind,” Tompkins said.

“We’ve come a long way; we’ve accomplished a lot, but I know it’s easy to sit back and say, ‘We’re out from under DOJ; there’s nothing more we need to do.’ That’s really just not the case. If you just sit still, you’re actually going to lose ground.”