MARIETTA — The simmering controversy surrounding the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office came to a boil last month.
On Dec. 9 the ACLU of Georgia hosted a gathering at Life Church on Powder Springs Road where relatives of inmates talked of mistreatment and death.
Some facts are beyond dispute. Six people died while in the sheriff’s custody in 2019. One died by suicide in the Cobb County Adult Detention Center run by the sheriff’s office. He was found in the shower area of the jail with a sheet around his neck, according to his autopsy and a report from the Cobb Medical Examiner’s Office. The other five died in area hospitals after medical emergencies that began at the detention center. A seventh inmate died in November of 2018.
But the speakers at Life Church on that December night said those seven deaths only scratch the surface of mistreatment at the detention center.
“What I heard was disgusting,” Chris Bruce, political director of the state ACLU, told the Cobb County Board of Commissioners a week later. “There were people who were not receiving their medication, people who were tied up, stripped naked, taken away from their food and other inhumane and unjust things.”
In a two-hour interview with Sheriff Neil Warren and his leadership team, the Marietta Daily Journal listed the grievances aired at the town hall. The sheriff and his staff addressed the inmate deaths and said some of the claims made by inmates, jail critics and others are exaggerated or flatly untrue.
They defended the office and its treatment of inmates at the detention center, calling the allegations politically motivated lies spread by prisoners and a disgruntled former employee.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like to constantly read in the paper things that we’re supposedly doing that we’re not doing,” said Chief Deputy Sonya Allen.
The inmates tell another story.
“We’re not guilty yet, and we’re treated like animals,” said Doug Jenkins, who was released from the detention center the night before the town hall. “This is Cobb County, Georgia. … Of all places in Georgia, this is prestigious, and this is happening to your families.”
Testimony at the town hall elicited audible gasps. One woman whose son is at the detention center said some inmates were beaten off-camera after a fight with the deputies, one so badly his eyeball came out of its socket. Another said her son was treated so roughly in April that he lost feeling in one of his arms.
“To this day he still does not have feeling in his arm,” she said. “(The inmates) did whatever they did, but you don’t have to treat them like scum.”
THE LOCKDOWNAmong the allegations levied against the sheriff’s office is the denial of basic human needs during a lockdown that began in September.
During a lockdown, inmates are confined to their cell for 23 hours and 45 minutes per day and are allowed to leave their cell only to shower.
Chief Deputy Allen said the detention center is put on lockdown from time to time as an enforcement mechanism. Inmate-on-inmate violence is common, she added, saying it often begins with gang rivalries and use of the commissary, the detention’s center store, where inmates can buy things such as snacks.
On Sept. 19, inmates and deputies got into a fight at the detention center. A picture of one deputy taken immediately after the fight showed him bloodied, with parts of his face bruised and swollen.
Arrest warrants filed shortly after the brawl state the three men attacked a deputy as he “attempted to lock down inmates” in a section of the jail. When another deputy came to his aid, he was also attacked, according to the warrants.
Accounts differ as to how the fight started. The sheriff’s leadership team said an inmate was upset about the amount of time he was made to spend in the recreation yard — likely because he wanted to prey on inmates who had just bought stuff at the commissary, they said — and attacked the deputy.
At the ACLU-organized town hall, a woman named Priscilla said her son, an inmate at the detention center, had witnessed the fight and gave her a different account of how it began.
According to Priscilla, the deputy and an inmate were indeed arguing over the commissary when the former used a racial slur. The argument escalated, and the deputy used pepper spray on the inmate, who swung at him. Other inmates standing nearby jumped in the fray, as did another deputy who showed up moments later.
Priscilla said the three inmates ultimately charged for their participation in the brawl were taken to another part of the detention center and beaten so badly that one man’s eye popped out of its socket, something the sheriff and his team vehemently deny.
Surveillance video of the fight was provided to the MDJ in response to an open records request. The video shows a deputy speaking to an inmate. After about 45 seconds, they part, and the inmate walks down a corridor and off screen. Moments later, an inmate — the sheriff’s staff say it was the same inmate who had been arguing with the deputy — returns to the common area. The deputy approaches him and appears to reach toward his face, at which point the inmate swings and a brawl ensues. The inmate manages to push the deputy away and grabs his face. The deputy and one of his colleagues approach the inmate and try to subdue him; two other inmates join the fray. The brawl ends almost three minutes into the video after the arrival of six more deputies.
Louie Hunter, the sheriff office’s legislative liaison, confirmed that the deputy had used pepper spray. He also said that the office did not take post-brawl pictures of the inmates, as it had done of the injured deputy.
“That would have meant taking those guys who were in a violent mode back to intake,” a relatively calm area within the detention center, Hunter said, adding, “That’s not the policy, to bring anybody back down there who’s already been through intake.”
Col. David Sanders, who runs the detention center, said the lockdown was not the result of just the Sept. 19 incident, but a culmination of “months of incidents.” He told the MDJ the lockdown ended at the beginning of October.
“We had to gain control,” Warren said of the lockdown. “This is for the safety and security of not only my deputies, but of the inmates.”
Sanders said the sheriff’s office has never put the entire detention center under lockdown for more than a month at a time. Certain pods, however, have been put on lockdown for more than a month; Sanders estimates the longest a single pod has ever been on lockdown is two months.
Former inmate Jenkins gives another version.
The lockdown that began shortly after the brawl on Sept. 19 ended Oct. 28, Jenkins said, something he remembers because his birthday was that week. But it resumed the week of Nov. 18, he claimed.
His pod was put on lockdown that week because two inmates were play-wrestling, he said. (Commander Richard Edwards said such behavior is forbidden, given the cost to county taxpayers should an inmate get hurt.) But he said he later learned through the “sick call network” — the information one gleans from other inmates while visiting the detention center’s nurse — that the entire jail was also on lockdown, where, he insists, it remains to this day.
“They tell you ‘We don’t have a jail-wide lockdown,’ yet everybody’s in lockdown,” Jenkins said.
The MDJ continues to receive letters from inmates, some of whom say they are still on lockdown.
One Paul S. writes in a letter dated Dec. 18, “we are still on lockdown 16 hours a day and allowed out of our beds from 7am to 11am and 7pm to 11pm.”
Last week, Hunter, Sanders and Edwards gave the MDJ a tour of the detention center. Center protocol prevented the reporter from entering cellblocks or speaking to inmates.
Edwards confirmed inmates are only allowed in the common area of their cellblocks for three hours in the morning and three at night, a change from how the detention center was run before the lockdown.
“They are confusing a lockdown … with the fact (that) we have changed the way we do business,” Edwards said. “They spend more time in their cells now than they used to. So now they have outside time, personal care time that they’re allowed outside of their cells, and in blocks, during the day. Before we allowed them outside of their cells for (a) much larger period of the time.”
The problem was, he continued, “we were constantly dealing with fights ... it just didn’t make any sense.”
CLAIMS OF MISTREATMENT
Inmates that have mailed the MDJ after the lockdown claimed they had no access to hygiene items including soap, toothpaste and deodorant, no access to stamps or envelopes and no response to the emergency button inside the cells.
Last month, former inmate Ashley Heyen sent the MDJ an affidavit she signed Dec. 23. In addition to repeating some of the above allegations, Heyen wrote she “Submitted no less than 10 to 12 medical request forms in 91 days and never was seen by medical for my specific request. … When I had lost consciousness due to my medical emergency, I soiled myself while unconscious. Was forced to remain in soiled clothing for three days.”
Jenkins said inmates would push the emergency buttons in their cells to no avail and that he had been denied toilet paper at one point for three days and was able to use the bathroom that week only because another inmate, returning from a bathroom trip himself, stuffed some under his cell door.
“Think about that accusation,” Hunter said. “Never would it cross anybody’s mind in here to deny someone a shower, toilet paper, soap … that’s inhuman, and everybody here has children, has family that might have them end up here.”
Chief Deputy Allen said inmates were given stamped envelopes and pens and paper so they could contact the outside world. They were not, she insists, denied visits from their attorneys, as some have charged.
Jenkins acknowledged he and other inmates were given stamped envelopes, paper and pens. But, he added, few inmates knew their attorney’s address in order to mail them from the detention center.
“You have no idea what’s going on with your case, unless your lawyer comes to talk to you personally,” he said. “You can’t even call your attorney to say, ‘I need a visit,’ or ‘I wanna talk about my case.’” (During the MDJ’s visit to the detention center on Thursday, inmates were seen using phones in their cellblocks. The sheriff’s office was given an hour and a half notice before the visit.)
Jenkins called the lockdown “psychological warfare” meant to force inmates into taking pleas they would otherwise never have accepted.
“Picture yourself being stuck, just your house. Now that’s a lot of room to move around in. We were stuck in something a little bigger than a closet,” he said. “We’re gonna jump on whatever offer comes. Because I’ve got to get out of there. I just got to get out of there. That’s the feeling.”
Sheriff’s officials maintain the lockdown was a matter of regaining control of an unruly inmate population, but one woman at the town hall said a receptionist at the detention center had told her the lockdown was the result of a staffing shortage at the sheriff’s office, something Allen denies.
“We do have a staffing shortage, however this jail will always be adequately (staffed),” she said. “We will have enough numbers here to work our jail.”
They accomplish that by pulling staff from the office’s other divisions, Sheriff Warren said: Court security, field operations and administration.
“Yes, I’d love to hire about 60 more people,” Warren said. “If it takes everybody and cutting down two courtrooms, I’ll do whatever I (need to) do, even if I get thrown in jail.”
Some said the lockdown was to inmates’ benefit.
“We had other inmates tell us during the lockdown that they actually felt safer,” said Commander Edwards. “Because the fact that the other inmates, the — no better term but ‘predators’ — didn’t have access to them.”
Forty-seven people have died while in custody of the sheriff’s office since Warren was appointed interim sheriff in Dec. 2003, according to a list provided by the sheriff’s office in response to an open records request submitted by the MDJ. Nine of them died at the detention center; the remainder died in area hospitals.
Here is a year-by-year count since Warren took office:
♦ 2004: 7
♦ 2005: 0
♦ 2006: 6
♦ 2007: 2
♦ 2008: 4
♦ 2009: 2
♦ 2010: 2
♦ 2011: 4
♦ 2012: 2
♦ 2013: 3
♦ 2014: 2
♦ 2015: 1
♦ 2016: 2
♦ 2017: 2
♦ 2018: 2
♦ 2019: 6
“This is a town, this 2,500, 2,100 inmate (detention center) is a little community inside here, and you’re going to have sicknesses unfortunately and you’re going to have deaths,” Warren said. “They don’t even know they’re sick until they come in here and they’re being dried out from the alcohol and the drugs.”
The ACLU has made several demands of the sheriff’s office, among them that all the deaths this year be “explained fully, with a plan to make sure no other deaths happen.”
Warren and his staff insist that isn’t possible.
“It’s like rolling the dice, almost,” Allen said. “If somebody’s liver hasn’t been functioning for nine months prior to coming in our jail, that’s who they brought to us. … We don’t pick and choose who comes to us.”
POLITICSWarren says the allegations of impropriety are politically motivated and originate with former deputy sheriff Jimmy Herndon, who is seeking the office Warren now holds.
Warren is up for reelection in 2020. A department employee since 1977, he was appointed interim sheriff following the retirement of Sheriff Bill Hutson in December 2003. He was elected to the post in November 2004 and again in 2008, 2012 and 2016. In 2016, he defeated Democrat Gregory Gilstrap in the general election with 56% of the vote.
Herndon is one of two Democratic candidates vying to replace Warren in 2020. (The other is retiring Maj. Craig Owens of the Cobb County Police Department.) Herndon has cast himself as a reformer committed to exposing injustice within the office. Warren, in turn, says Herndon has a vendetta and is simply seeking his revenge for having been terminated in 2017.
At the ACLU town hall, Herndon told attendees the allegations made that night only scratched the surface of impropriety at the detention center.
Warren did not attend the town hall, which was held on a Monday. He said the ACLU was being dishonest when it said he had been invited; an email, addressed to no one in particular, was sent to the sheriff’s office shortly before 5 p.m. the Friday prior, he said, and it said only that there would be a town hall and that he would be expected to listen and not speak.
Even if he had been given a proper invitation, Warren said, “I’m not sure if I would have went anyway if I couldn’t defend my staff.”
Bruce, political director of the state ACLU, suggested Cobb commissioners flex their muscle as elected representatives and use their ability to fund Warren’s office to force changes there.
One expert said that was a nonstarter.
“Really the county commission cannot compel the sheriff to do anything,” said Deborah Nesbitt, associate legislative director at the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. “(Commissioners) could reduce his budget, but then he could always file a lawsuit against the county saying they are not properly funding him to meet his constitutional requirements,” a fight he would likely win.”
The county does plan on getting involved, however.
“All the judges, the sheriff and I are meeting to discuss issues at the jail” in early February, county Chairman Mike Boyce said Friday. “The sheriff has to handle that population, but is everyone who’s going (there) — do they have to go there? ... there’s the expectation that (inmates) go in there and they come out alive,” he continued. “But are we doing anything here that’s making it difficult for the sheriff to do that?”
Meanwhile, the state ACLU awaits the sheriff’s office’s fulfillment of an open records request submitted in November.
Among the requested documents are any internal affairs and criminal investigation files related to deaths at the detention center and incident reports filed by inmates between September and December of 2019.
The fact-finding stage will determine whether there is any basis for action, such as a lawsuit, said ACLU staff attorney Kosha Tucker. If a lawsuit were filed, fact-finding would become discovery, which could potentially furnish information that isn’t available through an open records request. But the ACLU won’t file a lawsuit for that reason alone, Tucker added.
“You want to make sure your lawsuit has merit before you file it,” she explained. “You wouldn’t want to file your lawsuit as a fishing expedition.”
In the meantime, “I think the sheriff’s office should be concerned about any exposure to liability, and I think the sheriff’s office should work to rectify the allegations of wrongdoing,” Tucker said, “so that they don’t have to face any kind of legal action.”