When Kesha Brownlee, 44, arrived at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City, Georgia, in 2017, she had struggled with schizophrenia for more than half her life, cycling in and out of incarceration.
And then, on April 22, 2017, the cycle stopped. While at the jail, she collapsed and was taken to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead shortly after arriving. Inside her stomach, the medical examiner found a white plastic spoon and part of a toothbrush, according to the autopsy report.
During her more than two months at the jail for an alleged probation violation, she was held in solitary confinement, according to the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR).
Women with psychiatric illnesses, like Brownlee, are often confined to their cells for at least 22 hours a day, said Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney for impact litigation with the SCHR.
On April 10, the SCHR and the Georgia Advocacy Office, a disability rights organization, filed a class action lawsuit against Fulton County Sheriff Theodore Jackson and several jail employees, alleging that women in the jail are discriminated against on the basis of both their gender and what the suit describes as their “psychiatric disabilities.” The Fulton County sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Men found incompetent to stand trial are housed at Fulton County Jail, where they are provided full-day programming, including counseling and group activities, according to the complaint. However, women must often wait months in isolation for a hospital bed to become available, according to Geraghty. Approximately 30 to 40 women are held in the jail’s mental health pods at any one time, she said in an email.
“Putting a person with a serious mental illness into a solitary confinement cell is going to worsen the person’s illness,” said Geraghty. “You see that playing out every day in this jail.”
M.J., one of the plaintiffs, was homeless when she was arrested on Oct. 24, 2018, for refusing to leave a mall where she was “proselytizing,” according to the complaint. Declared incompetent by the court and unable to pay $500 bond for her trespassing charge, M.J. is on a waiting list for a hospital.
She has been in solitary confinement since Oct. 29 and has attempted to hang herself twice with a bedsheet, according to the suit.
In February, K.H., another plaintiff, told a jail nurse she thought she had miscarried, according to the complaint. But the nurse surmised that K.H., whose pants were covered in blood, had, in fact, used “objects to gouge her vagina.”
K.H., like M.J., is waiting to be transferred to a hospital. She has been in solitary confinement since early November, the complaint alleges. K.H. and M.J.’s cases cannot be resolved until they are deemed competent.
Another woman, who was arrested for refusing to leave the outside area of a mosque where she had been sleeping, had been held in solitary confinement for more than two months as of August 2018, according to a letter from Geraghty to Sheriff Jackson.
An SCHR attorney who visited the woman at the jail, saw insects crawling on her body, desk, and food, according to the letter. There was no running water in her cell and the toilet did not flush, Geraghty wrote.
These experiences are typical for women housed in the jail’s mental health pods, explained Devon Orland, litigation director for the Georgia Advocacy Office.
“They’re there for months and months on end because they’re ill,” said Orland. “They’re declared to be so ill that they can’t speak for themselves and they need to become well enough to speak for themselves so that they can get out of jail.”
What little mental healthcare is provided is inadequate, according to the suit. For instance, each week a counselor asks M.J. a handful of questions at her cell door, according to the complaint. Sometimes M.J. is given a word puzzle.
In 2017, Correct Care Solutions and the Morehouse School of Medicine provided healthcare in the county’s jails. NaphCare Inc. took over the contract on Jan. 1, 2018, after five people died in custody within 75 days, according to the intent to terminate letter sent to Correct Care by the Department of Purchasing & Contract Compliance.
However, NaphCare, an Alabama-based company that provides healthcare to correctional institutions, has also previously been accused of dangerous and deadly neglect.
This year, NaphCare settled with the family of Jamycheal M. Mitchell for $1.8 million. Mitchell died on Aug. 19, 2015, at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Virginia. He had been found incompetent to stand trial because he had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Mitchell faced trespassing and petit larceny charges for stealing about $5 worth of candy and soda from a convenience store.
In February, the commonwealth’s attorney’s office released a report on Mitchell’s death and found that NaphCare’s “conduct with respect to Mr. Mitchell is significantly more culpable than that of any other actor involved in this case.”
“In light of repeated reports of profane and bizarre outbursts, refusal of mental health medications, diagnosed psychosis, and smearing of feces on walls, the lack of institutional consensus or action about the severity of Mr. Mitchell’s mental health concerns shocks the conscience,” the report reads.
In response to a series of questions, NaphCare’s chief of administration, Brad McLane, told The Appeal in an email: “In many circumstances, the correctional system is not the best place to treat or rehabilitate individuals living with serious mental illness. This is why NaphCare is continuously identifying new advancements in our approach to correctional health care to address these trends. And as necessary, we work to have our patients with serious mental illnesses transferred to an appropriate hospital or outside facility to meet the special needs of these challenging patients.”
Jails in Fulton County have a long history of problems. Fulton County Jail, the county’s main jail, was under a consent order from 2005 to 2015, after the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit in 2004, alleging that prisoners were subjected to overcrowding and inhumane conditions.
DeMontae Ware, who had schizophrenia, was murdered by a fellow prisoner at Fulton County Jail, on Sept. 7, 2014. He was supposed to go home in June. At the time of his death, he had completed a diversion program and his charges of public urination and criminal trespass had been dismissed. His mother has sued Fulton County Sheriff Jackson, as well as Corizon Health Inc., which was providing healthcare to the jail’s patients at that time.
In 2015, a class action suit was filed against Sheriff Jackson on behalf of more than 300 people held at the Fulton County Jail between Nov. 13 and Nov. 21, 2014, because they were incarcerated more than 24 hours after they were supposed to be released.
The month that Brownlee died, April 2017, a mental healthcare provider observed that her cell was “nasty with food, trash and clothes everywhere on the floor,” according to the complaint. Brownlee “was laying in the bed naked and came to the door yelling.”
“She was essentially left alone in her isolation cell and rapidly declined,” said Geraghty.
Conditions for women with psychiatric disabilities at the jail have remained just as dismal, despite their appeals to the sheriff’s office, according to Geraghty.
“Many people are just figures under covers,” said Geraghty. “They’re either lying on the floor or they’re lying in the bunks.”
Brownlee’s family hopes that by speaking out they can save other families the pain they have suffered. Those with mental illness need help, not incarceration, said her younger brother, Maurice Myrick.
“As a brother, I wish I could have protected her,” he said. “I wish I could have did the jail time with her. I would have sat there right with her.”