Death of 19-year-old in Atlanta jail reignites concerns about pretrial detention conditions
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JULY 10: A general view of Fulton County Jail building during "Masks For The People" Initiative at Fulton County Jail on July 10, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. The "Mask For The People" initiative kicked off in Atlanta, donating over 300 masks to inmates at Fulton County Jail. The program is designed to donate over 70,000 masks to the essential front line workers, elderly residents, incarcerated individuals, and protestors during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

The recent death of 19-year-old Noni Battiste-Kosoko while in custody in a Fulton County-controlled section of the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) has renewed concerns about inhuman conditions in detention facilities. According to the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, Battiste-Kosoko was found dead in her cell at dinner time on July 11 with “no obvious signs of injury.” She had been held without bond on a bench warrant for misdemeanor charges since May 20.

Battiste-Kosoko was a protected person under a class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and the Georgia Advocacy Office on behalf of women with psychiatric disabilities held in “repulsive” conditions at the South Fulton Jail, sometimes referred to as the South Annex Jail. These protections also covered women like Battiste-Kosoko, who were moved to different facilities like the ACDC when the South Annex shut down for repairs. In 2021, a federal judge approved a settlement agreement in the lawsuit, guaranteeing inmates at least 4 hours of daily out-of-cell time five days a week, as well as access to reading materials, clean drinking water, toiletries, personal hygiene products, and out-of-cell therapeutic activities. The agreement also required Fulton County to train correctional staff to work with people with psychiatric disabilities. However, in March 2023, SCHR filed a motion alleging that the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office had not shown proof that these out-of-cell time requirements were being met.

Another advocacy group, the ACLU of Georgia, placed the blame for Kosoko’s death squarely on Fulton County officials and their failure to address overcrowding and bond reform.

“Last year, the ACLU provided a roadmap for Fulton County to break the cycle of over-incarceration and the human rights crisis that exists for those awaiting trial behind bars,” the organization wrote in a July 13 press release. “We provided evidence-based reasons why increasing jail beds by adding space at the Atlanta City Detention Center was woefully inadequate. Since that time, Fulton County has done little to reduce overcrowding, but has instead saddled Fulton taxpayers with a $40,000 daily burden by moving people awaiting trial to detention space outside of Fulton County.”

In 2022, Fulton County came to a four-year agreement with the city of Atlanta to lease 700 beds in order to address overcrowding. SCHR, along with many other organizations, opposed the city’s decision, citing Fulton County Jail’s past issues of “endemic violence and abysmal medical care.” 

“It’s not just a facility issue,” said SCHR movement policy counsel Devin Franklin. “It’s a lack of care issue that seems to follow Fulton County wherever it goes.” 

In September 2022, Lashawn Thompson, another Fulton County inmate with psychiatric illness, died after months of “severe neglect,” according to an independent autopsy that found evidence of malnutrition, dehydration, “severe body insect infestation,” and filthy cell conditions.

On July 13, the United States Department of Justice announced that it had opened an investigation into Fulton County Jail’s conditions. 

“Based on an extensive review of publicly available information and information gathered from stakeholders, the Department has found significant justification to open this investigation, including credible allegations that an incarcerated person died covered in insects and filth, that the Fulton County Jail is structurally unsafe, that prevalent violence has resulted in serious injuries and homicides, and that officers are being prosecuted for using excessive force,” the department stated in a press release.

Many advocates have pointed out that Fulton County’s jail problems are part of a larger nationwide issue. In 2022, at least 28 inmates died in the Harris County Jail in Houston, and 19 died at New York City’s Rikers Island Detention Center alone. 

“Human rights crisis doesn’t even begin to cover it,” said Eliza Orlins, a New York City public defender and outspoken advocate for closing Rikers. Citing conditions like inmates sitting in their own feces and a lack of staff to transport inmates to medical appointments and court dates, Orlins said conditions at Rikers are worse than ever.

Orlins said it’s up to officials, including the mayor, and the Department of Corrections to accept accountability for the crisis. She and other reform advocates argue that the solution is sending fewer people to jail. 

“There are district attorneys who still ask for bail every single day and have people sent to Rikers, which could potentially be a death sentence,” Orlins said.

Fallon McClure, deputy director for policy and advocacy at the ACLU of Georgia, echoed this sentiment. 

“I think people are asking the wrong question,” said McClure. “They’re asking ‘do we need a bigger jail’ and ‘do we need more police’ instead of asking, ‘why are there so many people in there?’”

McClure says it’s important to remember that many of the inmates in jails like Fulton County and Rikers have not been convicted of a crime. In Fulton County Jail, 44.9% of those incarcerated haven’t been formally charged with a crime, and at least 83 people have been held for over one year without indictment.

According to McClure, inmates are too often at the mercy of overlapping jurisdictions and bureaucratic neglect that allow for things like medical care and post-carceral services like housing to slip through the cracks.

“When you’re in the criminal justice system, [any] mistake could literally cost someone their life,” McClure said.

For SCHR, the ACLU of Georgia, and other decarceration advocates, keeping people—especially those with special needs—out of the carceral system is crucial to saving lives. Both groups support a plan championed by former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to transform the ACDC into the Center for Diversion and Services in partnership with Fulton County. Advocates explain that the center would help divert those at risk of being arrested for low-level crimes away from an already overcrowded system.

Though the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office, Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, and the Atlanta Police Department have stated that they are working together to investigate Battiste-Kosoko’s death, many unanswered questions remain. Officials like Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat have expressed concerns regarding jail conditions and have advocated for reform, McClure says things like new facilities and increased funding won’t solve the problem.

“Things always go back to the status quo,” said McClure. “Until we start rethinking how we do the system as a whole, we’re going to keep getting the same result no matter where you are.”

Katherine Demby is a writer based in Queens. She covers law, race, politics, and culture. You can find her on Twitter at @kaye_demz.