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Justice Department launches civil rights investigation into dilapidated and unsanitary conditions at Georgia’s Fulton County Jail

<i>Johnny Crawford/The Atlanta Journal Constitution/Zuma</i><br/>The Justice Department announced a civil rights investigation into dilapidated and unsanitary conditions at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta
Johnny Crawford/The Atlanta Journal Constitution/Zuma
The Justice Department announced a civil rights investigation into dilapidated and unsanitary conditions at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta

By Hannah Rabinowitz and Dakin Andone, CNN

(CNN) — The Justice Department announced Thursday a civil rights investigation into dilapidated and unsanitary conditions at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, as well as violence against detainees.

The department will look into the conditions in which inmates are held, their access to mental and physical health care and violence perpetrated against detainees.

The investigation was sparked in part by the death of Lashawn Thompson, an incarcerated man who died in the jail last year “covered in lice and filth,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said in a news conference Thursday.

“Addressing conditions of confinement in our country requires focus on the conditions that exist inside our jails,” Clarke said, stressing jails should have “constitutional and humane conditions” in which people can live while they navigate the criminal justice process.

“Detention or incarceration in jail should not include exposure to unconstitutional living conditions that place lives in jeopardy or risks serious harm or assaults,” Clarke said.

Incarcerated people “are entitled to basic protections of their civil rights,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement following the news conference. “During this comprehensive review of the conditions of confinement at the Fulton County Jail, the Justice Department will determine whether systemic violations of federal laws exist, and if so, how to correct them.”

Thompson’s family is “encouraged” by the Justice Department’s investigation, Michael Harper, an attorney for Thompson’s family, said in a statement Thursday, adding they “hope that the responsible parties will be held accountable.”

Harper previously attributed Thompson’s death in custody last September to unsanitary conditions, including being housed inside a bug-infested cell that Harper said was “not fit for a diseased animal.”

“This is inexcusable and it’s deplorable,” he said in April.

At the time of his death, Thompson had been in custody on a misdemeanor assault charge since June 2022, Harper has said. Thompson was housed in the psychiatric wing of the jail because he suffered from mental health issues, per the attorney.

Thompson’s death and a preliminary internal investigation led Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat to request the resignations of the facility’s chief jailer and two assistant chief jailers. All three stepped down in April, according to a statement from the office.

The Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section, which is conducting the investigation with the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, will also probe whether the county and sheriff’s office “discriminate against persons with psychiatric disabilities inside the jail,” a news release said.

The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office listed Thompson’s manner and cause of death as undetermined, according to a document previously sent to CNN. The report listed schizoaffective disorder, bipolar and acute exacerbation as “other conditions.”

A separate medical review commissioned by attorneys for Thompson’s family determined his death was a homicide, citing in part a lack of medication in his system they said indicated his “severe mental illness” had gone untreated. Dehydration, malnutrition and severe body insect infestation, including lice and bed bugs, were also listed as “significant conditions.”

However, Dr. Kendall Von Crowns, the chief medical examiner in Tarrant County, Texas, who reviewed and analyzed the report for CNN, said it was too difficult to determine the manner of death based on the independent report.

Without viewing the original autopsy, toxicology report and photos of Thompson’s body, “it looks like malnutrition and dehydration is the cause of his death,” Von Crowns told CNN.

In its news release Thursday, the Justice Department indicated it had “not reached any conclusions regarding the allegations in this matter.”

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CNN’s Nick Valencia contributed to this report.

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