Broken Promises Land Ga. Prison Officials In Contempt

By Chart Riggall | April 24, 2024, 5:29 PM EDT ·

A Georgia federal judge has slapped the state's prison officials with a contempt ruling imposing fines and appointing an independent monitor after finding the state Department of Corrections has for years flouted the terms of a settlement over its treatment of prisoners in its most punitive unit.

Charging the officials with "thumbing their nose" at the court by refusing to improve conditions in the Department of Corrections' Special Management Unit — which houses the state's most dangerous offenders in solitary confinement conditions — U.S. District Judge Marc T. Treadwell said in a blistering order Tuesday that the department "violated every requirement" of a 2019 agreement, a pattern that continued even as the department asked for more time to come into compliance.

"As the end of the injunction's term neared, it became clear to the court that the defendants, in effect, were running a four-corners offense and had no desire or intention to comply with the court's injunction; they would stall until the injunction expired," Judge Treadwell said. "The court can no longer tolerate the defendants' misconduct and, for the reasons discussed below, holds the defendants in contempt."

In addition to demanding the state meet the terms of the nearly five-year-old settlement, which is now extended for at least six months, the order has appointed a to-be-determined monitor and levied a fine of $2,500 per day against the Georgia Department of Corrections, or GDC.

In a statement Tuesday, the Southern Center for Human Rights – which, alongside attorneys from Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, represents the prisoner plaintiffs — said it was "hopeful" the measures "will bring the change that has eluded people in the SMU for far too long."

"The Constitution's protections do not stop at the prison walls, a basic truth that should not be lost on any government official," said Atteeyah Hollie, SCHR's deputy director. "But what we've seen at the SMU is a wholesale disregard for the law, the court's order, and the rights of fellow Georgians who are imprisoned there. This level of noncompliance would be astounding in any other area of state government, but at the SMU, it was the norm, and people suffered."

According to Judge Treadwell's order — initially published last week, and then revised Tuesday — the litigation against the GDC originated in 2015 from prisoner allegations of inhumane conditions within the Special Management Unit. Located within the Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson, Georgia, the unit houses "the worst inmates in Georgia's prison system," the judge said, opining that "as a group, they have done nothing to earn sympathy."

"They are, however, entitled to certain minimal conditions of confinement," the judge added, and there, the state had come up woefully short.

Under correctional policy, the SMU is intended to operate as a progressively incentivized unit of solitary confinement where offenders are gradually transitioned to less punitive conditions, according to the order. Instead, the unit "had become a final stop rather than an interim rehabilitative stop," where prisoners were frequently held until their release date, the order notes.

Dr. Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, visited the facility in late 2017 and found it to be "one of the harshest and most draconian" solitary units he had ever seen, and that its inmates, locked in "hermetically sealed" cells in squalid conditions, "were among the most psychologically traumatized" he'd evaluated, according to the order.

Haney's report on the SMU became the basis for the 2019 settlement agreement that mandated improved conditions for inmates, including more time out of their cells, better nutrition and sanitation, and access to reading materials and programming. The deal also mandated limits on how long prisoners could be held in the unit, and included staffing requirements, as well as oversight and reporting metrics.

But even before the settlement was finalized, Judge Treadwell said, "warning signs" began to appear that the state would not comply.

Prisoners soon complained that few, if any, of the new conditions were being met; indeed, a GDC audit from December 2020 painted "a depressing picture suggesting that conditions in the SMU were even worse than the conditions Dr. Haney documented in 2017," the judge said.

Then in 2022, the plaintiffs made their first bid to hold the department in contempt of court. On the eve of a hearing on the issue, the department agreed to extend the settlement out through January 2024. But subsequent status conferences in 2023 showed the state was still committing "serious violations" of the settlement, according to the order.

Faced with a lack of evidence and untruthful testimony from the state, Judge Treadwell said court intervention was the only remaining reasonable option.

"The extension and appointment of an independent monitor are necessary to remedy the defendants' past, present, and future noncompliance, and no other less-restrictive sanctions would be adequate," he added.

Kilpatrick's Stephanie Bedard, counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a statement Tuesday, "The district court's order creates a new level of accountability and transparency for what happens to the men in the SMU. There is reason to be hopeful that conditions will improve. We will continue to work with the Southern Center for Human Rights to enforce the rights of our clients in the SMU."

The Georgia Department of Corrections declined to comment on the ruling.

The plaintiffs are represented by Atteeyah Hollie, Alison Ganem and Ebony Brown of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Stephanie N. Bedard, Tamara Serwer Caldas, C. Allen Garrett Jr. and James F. Bogan III of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP.

The Department of Corrections and its officials are represented by Elizabeth M. Crowder, Tina M. Piper, Beth A. Burton and Christopher M. Carr of the Georgia Attorney General's Office.

The case is Daughtry et al. v. Emmons et al., case number 5:15-cv-00041, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.

--Editing by Lakshna Mehta.

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