How the Fulton County Jail became Georgia’s very own Guantanamo Bay

Fulton County’s top political and legal officials face tough questions over the nation’s most notorious jail.
There’s no argument Fulton County’s detention center is in crisis. If a new jail is built, it will cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars. But why do the co
Published: Oct. 30, 2023 at 2:54 PM EDT|Updated: Nov. 2, 2023 at 8:56 AM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - There’s no argument Fulton County’s detention center is in crisis.

If a new jail is built, it will cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars. But why do the conditions exist?

An Atlanta News First Investigation uncovered hundreds of people inside the county jail waiting extraordinary lengths of time for their day in court – as long as 13 years – overcrowding the jail, caused by an unprecedented backlog of criminal cases.

Some Atlanta criminal defense attorneys compare the jail to the notorious Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba, or Gitmo, which has held suspected 9/11 terrorists without trial for decades. It’s arguably legal because the detainees are not on American soil and not subject to protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. That’s not the case for detainees inside the Fulton County Jail.

Two cases recently tried at the Fulton County Courthouse illustrate the consequences of the backlog and its impact on the public and the jail.

Atlanta police arrested Darez Sanders in December 2013 for the shooting deaths of Timothy Jackson and two others at a home off Gary Court, down the road from Lincoln Cemetery.

Jackson’s girlfriend, Latarcia Gaither, found him dead inside his home. “Finding somebody that you love and care about with their head blown off like that ... I wouldn’t wish that on my own worst enemy,” Gaither said. “That took a lot from me. It destroyed me.”

Until his trial this past August, Sanders waited behind bars at the Fulton County Jail for nearly 10 years. He was 18 years old when he arrived.

Gaither said the trial delay impacted her mental health. She went to therapy for years. “I felt like my life was on hold,” she said, “like I couldn’t move on because I needed closure from this.”

While a jury ultimately found Sanders guilty, not everyone waiting years for their day in court inside the jail is guilty.

D’Anthony Tolbert is one of them.

Atlanta police arrested Tolbert and his former roommate for murder in 2019. This past July, his attorney argued the district attorney had no proof he was involved.

“There’s no physical evidence that Mr. Tolbert assaulted anybody, fired a gun at anybody, drove the vehicle that night,” Dennis Francis, Tolbert’s attorney, said during the trial.

Tolbert’s trial was overseen by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney. Frustrated with the district attorney’s presentation, Tolbert spoke out in court. “Excuse me, Judge McBurney, I don’t mean no disrespect, but this is my life,” Tolbert said. “I have just once chance.”

After waiting four and a half years behind bars to prove his innocence, Tolbert was found not guilty.

Today, Tolbert, now 25, is homeless, and is sleeping on couches with family and friends in Macon, Georgia. “I ain’t even going to lie to you, it tore me up,” Tolbert said. “I’m scared right now, because I don’t have nobody. I don’t have a support team.”

While behind bars, Tolbert lost his family, his job and almost his life. Tolbert’s arms and back are riddled with about a dozen stab wounds from knives and shanks he said happened inside the jail.

“People don’t understand,” Tolbert said. “They really don’t know the lives they’re messing up.”

According to records provided by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office in September, at least 690 people were waiting more than a year in jail for their trial dates as of Sept. 16, 2023. A total of 142 people have waited more than three years, and at least 19 people were waiting more than five years.

That includes 61-year-old Darrell Lowe, who has waited 13 years for his trial date.

Lowe is charged with murder. He’s spent about half his time in sheriff’s custody at a mental health institution. His remaining six years have been at the jail, where he is today.

The sheriff

“I knew when I ran for office that the system was broken. I just didn’t know how broken,” said Sherriff Pat Labat, who has been in office since January 2021. “We inherited this system, and it is one that allows people to languish in jail, waiting for the opportunity to either get the mental health help they need or have their competency restored.”

Labat said when the jail was built in 1989, it was never intended to detain people for years at a time. At one point, it detained 3,600 people, more than twice the capacity. Most of the inmates are charged with violent felonies, while 187 were in jail on misdemeanors charges as of late summer.

Labat said his department is caught between the district attorney’s office and judges, waiting for them to move cases along, while his jail and detainees suffer the consequences. So far this year, 10 detainees have died before they had an opportunity to have their cases heard before a judge or jury. Their causes of death range from stabbings, alleged medical neglect and some still undetermined.

>> Watch Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat’s full interview here

In July, the U.S Department of Justice announced it launched a civil investigation into the conditions of the jail. According to a press release, the federal government will “examine living conditions, medical and mental health care, use of excessive force, and protection from violence.”

Later this week, a Georgia senate subcommittee announced it will hold a hearing to investigate issues at the jail and to search for possible solutions.

To alleviate overcrowding, the sheriff has transferred hundreds of inmates to neighboring counties. He’s also suggested moving some out of state as far away as Mississippi, against the objection from defense attorneys. Labat even wrote a letter to each of Georgia’s 158 sheriffs, asking if any of them had beds available.

But these actions are a band-aid to the problem, Labat said. The court’s ability to clear the case backlog and sustain it is out of his control. He’s calling to build a new, bigger facility focused on mental health services, which could cost taxpayers more than $1 billion.

“There’s enough blame to go around,” Labat said. “I can tell you who is not to blame: the sheriff’s office.”

The district attorney

According to records obtained from the Fulton County Superior Court Clerk in August, at least 1,232 people inside the jail have not been indicted. About 60 of them have been waiting more than a year.

They are individuals not formally charged with felonies, waiting for Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ office to take the case to a grand jury to determine charges, while they sit behind bars.

“People need to be timely indicted, timely tried and given the opportunity to force the state to prove its case,” said Andrew Fleishman, a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta. Fleishman criticized the DA on X, formerly Twitter, earlier this year, saying Willis “has been keeping people in jail without trial, or even indictment, for years. Rice Street has become our very own GITMO.”

>> Watch Fulton County DA Fani Willis’ full interview here

Fleishman was comparing the county jail to the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba, or Gitmo, which has held suspected 9-11 terrorists without trial for decades. “You are holding people for long periods of time, without charging them with a crime, without giving them due process that’s exactly what happened at Gitmo,” Fleishman said.

In September, Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis raised the issue during a meeting, upset more progress had not been made after allocating $75 million in federal pandemic aid to address it. “Collectively, people are pissed of the level of results, or lack there of,” said Ellis during the meeting.

Willis said the commission is using her office as a scapegoat for the county’s inaction involving the jail and other parts criminal justice system, long before she took office.

“Commissioner Ellis is not a supporter of criminal justice; is ignorant; doesn’t know what he’s talking about most days; and is just not really trying to make himself informed of the issues or the progress,” Willis said. “Commissioners have tried to paint this picture that somehow incarceration and indictment tie hand-in-hand, and they don’t.

“What they would like to do is to paint a scapegoat for inaction that they’ve taken,” Willis said. “It is unconscionable the way that our jail is. People need to be in safe conditions.”

Defendants are entitled to a bond after 90 days, but that does not guarantee them a “get out of jail free card” if they are not indicted by that time. It means a superior court judge likely determined the accused is a flight or security risk at their initial bond appearance; are not eligible for a bond due to unrelated pending charges; or they couldn’t afford to pay bail to be released.

Willis, a long-time prosecutor who took office in January 2021, claims her predecessor often took whatever the police faxed to the DA’s office to indict cases with little or no investigation of its own. “We changed completely the way we did business, meaning that prior to someone being indicted, we had to actually have the evidence,” Willis said. “That sounds novice to people, but they were not doing that.”

The district attorney said the 19 individuals waiting more than five years in the sheriff’s custody for trial dates have mental health issues and cannot go to trial until a doctor determines they are competent.

Until then, many of them go back and forth from the jail to Georgia Regional Hospital, a mental health institution the county uses to treat inmates. The facility is for, according to Willis, “people that are so severely mentally ill, extremely violent, not someone you want on the street, [and] not someone your neighbor wants on the street.”

The district attorney has also faced criticism for the enormous resources used to prosecute multidefendant cases, including the election interference investigation which indicted 19 people in August, including former President Donald Trump. It took Willis more than two years to investigate and bring the case before a grand jury.

Two of the 19 defendants requested speedy trials to have their cases heard within months. Willis did not object to the timeline.

Atlanta criminal defense attorneys like Erin King said that’s unfair to the hundreds of individuals waiting years for court dates in the jail. During the pandemic, the county’s chief judge issued an order suspending speedy trial requests, citing the pandemic. That order ended in July.

“Rice Street is the Titanic,” King said. “The rich are being accorded lifeboats and life jackets while the poor and the disenfranchised people of color, either can’t afford the life jackets that may nor may not exist and also being locked below the deck.”

Wills said she’s not going to apologize for taking tackling cases that require charging multiple people at a time. “Gangs are causing 80 percent of all crimes and they’re stronger together and they’re going to be indicted together, held responsible together, so that juries get full pictures of the harm,” she said.

The DA also blames the backlog on the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) because its crime lab cannot test drugs quickly enough in a timely manner. She said its lab doesn’t have enough resources to handle all of the requests from her office and the rest of the state.

For example, Willis said if someone is arrested today for meth, heroin and cocaine possession, GBI will only test for one of them. Willis said she’d then be forced to the drop charges for the other two drug possessions. “They don’t have enough resources to test it,” Willis said. “So they only test one of three drugs.”

While Willis said her office has made strides reducing the court’s backlog, that backlog nonetheless continues growing. So far this year, Fulton County’s pending criminal cases have spiked 28 percent from 18,014 in December to 23,211 in August.

To tackle it, Willis said she needs more staff. “We need more investigators and more lawyers and legal support staff that can support them,” she said.

The commission chairman

Fulton County Commission Chair Robb Pitts heads the commission that holds the county’s purse strings that could get the DA those employees that Willis said are needed.

But Pitts said he’s tired of allocating tax dollars to a criminal justice system without getting better results. He also doesn’t think a new jail is needed because overcrowding will remain until the court’s backlog is cleared. Pitts wants to renovate the current jail instead.

“A brand new jail is not going to solve the problem if you don’t have good management in that jail,” Pitts said. “The reason is for the jail being overcrowded, if we’re honest, is that those who are responsible processing those in jail, through the system, are not doing their job.”

>> Watch Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts’ full interview here

Pitts, elected to the commission about 20 years ago, puts a lot of the blame on Fulton County Superior Court judges, who he believes are not pulling their weight to move cases along.

“Some work. Some do not,” Pitts said. “Some come to work at 10 in the morning, go to lunch at 12 p.m., play golf. We monitor this. The judges who are working come to my office and tell me which ones are working, which ones are not working.”

While Pitts won’t name the judges, he points to a monthly report published on the county’s website which identifies how many inmates in the jail are assigned to each judge. As of late August, at least nine of the judges were juggling more than 100 defendants each. Pitts has suggested taking out a weekly advertisement in a newspaper posting the chart for the public to see for themselves.

Pits also puts a lot of blame on the public for the jail’s crisis.

“The voters are at fault in all of this, from my perspective, for electing and reelecting the same people. You get the same results. It’s your fault,” he said. “We don’t run the jail. We don’t indict people. We don’t charge people. None of that. We’re trying to solve a problem by providing the resources which we have been very generous with.”

The chief judge

Fulton County Chief Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville disagrees with Pitts, and said he and his bench colleagues are working hard to move cases along, but are at the mercy of prosecutors and defense attorneys’ ability to get their cases ready.

For example, Fulton County does not have enough court-appointed attorneys. These are the lawyers who represent the majority of people in jail who cannot afford to pay for one.

The lack of legal presentation was on full display during a hearing this past July before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Eric Dunaway.

The judge was talking with a defendant in court who was complaining about not having a court-appointed attorney after sitting in the jail for nearly a year. “We have a lot of defendants in custody, people who are in custody, who don’t have lawyers to represent them,” Dunaway said. “It is a problem.”

“If you don’t have public defenders, it affects (the ability of the criminally accused) to have adequate representation,” Glanville, who was elected to the bench in 2005 and has been chief for about a year, said.

>> Watch Fulton County Chief Judge Ural Glanville’s full interview here

For more than a year, Atlanta News First Investigates has extensively investigated the shortages in court-appointed attorneys across Georgia and its impact on the justice system. In August 2022, Fulton County records showed at least 113 people indicted for crimes did not have a court-appointed attorney; 29 of them had been behind bars longer than a year.

Glanville said the length of jury trials also impacts the delays.

While 90 to 95 percent of cases will be resolved in a plea agreement between the district attorney and the defense attorney, the rest involve people who want a jury to determine their fate. Glanville said most judges only have the capacity to try four to six cases a month, especially if homicide cases are on their calendar. Each homicide trial can take up two weeks of a judge’s time, which includes seating a jury, cross-examining multiple witnesses and jury deliberations.

Glanville said cases are also often delayed by GBI’s overburdened crime lab, which takes months to test drugs and firearm ballistics, often needed before the district attorney will pursue charges or drop a case.

“If I’m a defendant and that science will exonerate me or or at least give me a better understanding of where I stand with that case, there’s nothing I can do until I get that data point,” Glanville said.

Last December, Glanville signed an order suspending defendants’ ability to request speedy trials, citing the pandemic. While the order ended in July, he admits it potentially impacted thousands of people eager to move their cases forward.

To address the backlog, Glanville said his colleagues created a temporary program to fund more court-appointed attorneys. They’re also holding court inside the jail on Saturdays.

The ability to get inmates mentally competent to stand trial creates delays, too. Glanville said about 40 percent of the jail population suffers from undiagnosed mental health challenges. He’s now considering creating a competency court, where one judge handles the cases to make sure inmates receive the treatment, medication and therapy required to get them ready for court.

“We have decided to that this would be an important thing for us to kind of keep track … to maintain these kind of cases and give them the attention they deserve,” Glanville said.

To do that all that, he said the county needs more judges, an expense Pitts also is reluctant to fund.

With the appropriate resources, Glanville believes the county will be in a better position a year from now to reduce the backlog and jail overcrowding. “We are constitutionally mandated to give you time and opportunity to have your case heard either before a judge or jury,” Glanville said. “And that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

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