ATLANTA – The last straw for the problem-plagued Fulton County Jail (search) came when an inmate escaped from a maximum-security wing while guards were serving as extras during the making of a rap music video behind bars.
Now a federal judge is expected any day now to take away control of the jail from the sheriff and turn it over to someone else because of widespread complaints that the place is overcrowded, understaffed and badly run.
"This is as bad as it gets," said Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights (search). "There are cells with toilets that don't work. There are people who are sleeping on floors of the jail — floors that flood for various reasons."
Bright filed a lawsuit on behalf of an inmate alleging conditions at the jail — overfilled cells, broken laundry facilities, poor ventilation, seeping sewage — amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
It was Bright who asked for the removal of Sheriff Jackie Barrett (search), who in 1992 became the first black woman elected sheriff in the nation. And the sheriff has raised no objection.
The jail, which opened in 1989, holds about 2,900 inmates, or more than twice the number it was designed for.
"It's gross mismanagement. There's something new every week," said Fulton County Commission Chairwoman Karen Handel. She added that Barrett should be able to handle the jail because she is given an $80.5 million budget that allows for spending of $55 per inmate per day.
Problems at the jail have been growing for years, but they drew more attention last month when an inmate escaped while rapper Clifford Harris (search), known as T.I. (search), was allowed to use a maximum-security cell, guards and inmates as props and extras for a music video.
The escaped inmate was a convicted forger jailed on a parole violation. Wearing the blue medical scrubs she had on when she entered the jail, she simply slipped out a door for employees. She was caught six hours later at a gas station.
Ultimately, an internal investigation concluded there was no connection between the escape and the video shoot. Barrett, for her part, said she had not authorized the making of the video, and she fired a jail supervisor and suspended three others for their roles in the shoot.
"She has said she did not know anything about it. That says she does not have direct supervision," said Harry Ross, a pollster and political strategist pushing for Barrett's resignation. "The morale is very, very low, and people are basically making decisions without her knowledge."
There have been many other incidents at the jail in recent years, including a near-riot last August when deputies tried to turn off an Atlanta Falcons football game before it was over.
Last year, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the black militant known in the 1960s as H. Rap Brown, and two other inmates broke the locks in their maximum-security cells, cut a screen and tried to break a window so they could lower themselves out of the jail with a rope made of sheets. Al-Amin was caught and sent to a state prison.
Also last year, two inmates crawled through a ventilation shaft, slipped out a seventh-floor window and climbed down bed sheets to freedom.
Barrett herself may face charges for sinking $7.2 million in taxpayer dollars in a money-losing investment fund and taking campaign contributions from businessmen who stood to benefit from those investments.
Gov. Sonny Perdue (search) has appointed a panel to examine whether he should suspend Barrett, who has said she will not seek re-election this year.
Barrett did not return a call Wednesday. But her attorney, Ted Lackland, said the problems at the jail are caused by inadequate funding, too few deputies, political feuds and a clogged judicial system that creates overcrowding.
"It's a systemic problem in the criminal justice system. Each participant in that system is partially responsible," Lackland said. "What we're trying to do is move the conversation off a personality dispute and into a problem-solving perspective."
The Georgia Sheriffs' Association requested the governor's investigation of Barrett but said she may not be entirely to blame.
"You can do everything right and still have major problems," said Terry Norris, executive vice president. "Operating jails is very complex."