By Kristal Dixon | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | November 22, 2019
The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia is wading into the fray surrounding several deaths and reports of understaffing at the Cobb County Jail.
Sheriff Neil Warren and his department have come under fire after seven inmates died while in custody in the past 12 months. Activists and families of some inmates are calling attention to conditions they believe could threaten the health and safety of inmates, including what appeared to be a long-term lockdown of the jail making communication with inmates difficult.
The ACLU has filed an open records request with the Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, for information related to its policies and procedures. They are seeking records on jail staffing, inmate numbers, use of force records and the number of complaints filed by inmates alleging abuse or misconduct.
ACLU of Georgia staff attorney Kosha Tucker said the organization has received complaints from family members of inmates incarcerated at the facility.
Those family members, she said, were “left in the dark” about what was happening inside the jail during a lockdown they said was put into place in September after three inmates allegedly assaulted two officers. Both deputies were taken to the hospital with injuries, according to arrest warrants.
“They couldn’t confirm the condition of their loved ones because the couldn’t reach their loved ones,” Tucker said of the family members.
Atlanta resident Rajinder Davis is seeking answers from the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office after her husband, Steven, died June 8 at the Cobb County Jail following what the Sheriff’s Office described as a “medical emergency.” He was taken to an area hospital where he died.
Davis’s death is under investigation by the Cobb Medical Examiner’s Office, and Sheriff’s Office spokesman Glenn Daniel said the department is unable to provide any more details until the investigation is finished.
Davis said her 37-year-old husband had been incarcerated at the jail since May 15 on a probation violation charge. She was told her husband “passed away from a seizure.”
“My husband doesn’t even have a history of seizures,” she said, adding she talked to him on the day before he died and he had no complaints.
Daniel confirmed the jail was placed on lockdown from Sept. 27 to Oct. 25 “to discourage dangerous and disruptive behaviors among inmates and to ensure the safety of our staff and inmates.” The inmates were sequestered in their cells for nearly 24 hours a day, with only 15 minutes to shower. Daniel also said inmates were allowed contact with family members.
In response to complaints made by local activists and residents, Daniel said Warren “takes it very personal when there is a complaint that would reflect poorly on the outstanding job that our personnel team does daily.”
The lockdown and in-custody deaths have propelled local activists to call on Warren to improve conditions at the facility and hire more staff. The latest inmate death occurred Sunday when Christopher Lawrence Hart of Marietta experienced a medical emergency at the jail and later died at WellStar Kennestone Hospital.
Tucker said the conditions at the Cobb jail, if true, violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
“These conditions, if they are true, means they can have a serious impact on peoples’ mental health and physical health,” she added.
According to a study released in 2016 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1,053 inmates died in local jails in 2014, the latest year of study available. The report notes that suicide was the leading cause of death in local jails. Eighty percent of jails in 2014 reported no deaths, the report adds.
In Cobb, the seven deaths reported since December 2018 include one suicide, an accidental drug overdose, an inmate dying of dehydration and four other deaths that were preceded by medical emergencies.
Timothy Gardner, an attorney hired by the family of Kevil Wingo, an inmate who died Sept. 29 after he also experienced what the sheriff’s office called a “medical emergency,” said the department has “been very uncooperative in giving us what we need.” He said the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office is also waiting on the law agency to provide incident summaries and video before it can complete its report on Wingo’s death.
From what he’s been able to determine, Gardner said “improper, poor medical care,” inadequate staffing and the lockdown are contributing factors in Wingo’s death.
“Mr. Wingo would be alive today had he received quality medical care at that jail,” he said.
Daniel said there is no correlation between staffing levels and the inmates who have died. The Cobb jail relies on WellStar Health System to provide medical staffing, and training and staffing decisions are made by its medical providers. The jail is also inspected quarterly by grand jurors as well as by local elected officials.
The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office has 503 sworn authorized positions and 72 vacancies. Daniel said the department does not release staffing breakdowns for the jail due to “security concerns.”
While Cobb County jail staffing is adequate, Daniel said the agency is working to fill positions to alleviate the workload “carried by the dedicated and hardworking men and women of the sheriff’s office.” The department has also taken steps to address recruitment and retention, including increased starting pay and later entry and educational pay incentives.
Allyce Arnold, a Cobb County Realtor, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that her son has been incarcerated at the jail since August. When he first arrived, he was calling her everyday, but those calls suddenly stopped in September. She called the Cobb jail, and was told that a lockdown was in place. When she finally received a letter from her son, he told her the inmates were only allowed out of their cells 15 minutes each day. Now, Arnold said her son told her the inmates are allowed out of their cells for two hours a day. However, she said they are not granted visitation, television access or commissary purchases.
“This is completely inhumane,” she said of the lockdown conditions. “I know my son made a mistake, but you still don’t do this to people.”
Dec. 8 will mark six months since Steven Davis’s death, and his widow said the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office is waiting on additional test results that could help determine a cause of death.
Rajinder Davis is hoping for answers about what happened inside the jail. “I know they are saying they are understaffed, but people just can’t be dying and no one not knowing what’s going on,” she said. “I just want answers.”