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10 inmates have died in the overcrowded Fulton County Jail in Atlanta

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Courts across the country are still catching up on criminal prosecutions that were ground to a halt during the pandemic. That led to overcrowding in the nation's jails, where some defendants have been waiting, sometimes for years, for their day in court. In Atlanta's Fulton County Jail, the overcrowding has meant death. As Sarah Kallis of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports, that has leaders and activists scrambling for a solution.

SARAH KALLIS, BYLINE: In September, 10 days after Samuel Lawrence died in the Fulton County Jail, his father and supporters rallied in front of the county courthouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK RICHARDSON: No justice...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No peace.

RICHARDSON: No justice...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No peace.

RICHARDSON: All right.

KALLIS: Frank Richardson wanted justice for his son, who had been in the jail for eight months, awaiting trial on a second-degree arson charge. Officials say Lawrence was murdered by his cellmate. A few days later, another inmate died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARDSON: But this is the situation. I'll never see my son again, and he's been taken away from me. And no man wants to bury his son.

KALLIS: Before he died, his son Lawrence had written a letter to federal officials alleging violent physical abuse by jail staff and improper psychiatric treatment. Ten people have died this year in the Fulton County Jail. Activists like Basil Jupiter have long pushed for an end to cash bail to ease the overcrowding at the jail. It's the same jail where former President Donald Trump was booked in August.

BASIL JUPITER: You know, not everybody is Donald Trump, who can just go in and out. So many people who can't afford bail can be immediately freed.

KALLIS: The sheriff's office acknowledged the overcrowding and staff shortages, and the U.S. Justice Department has been investigating. Now a special study committee of state senators is also looking into the problem.

TATE MCCOTTER: Jails have become the dumping ground for the mentally ill.

KALLIS: That's Tate McCotter with the National Institute for Jail Operations. More than 50% of Fulton's jail population is being treated for mental health conditions. So McCotter asked state senators to imagine - it's your first day as a corrections officer, and it's chaos.

MCCOTTER: And by the way, I'm 19 years old. We have some agencies now that can't hire, and they're hiring 18-year-olds.

KALLIS: He says it's a tough job for little money. The Fulton County Jail was originally built to house around 1,000 detainees. As Fulton County Court still plays catch-up on COVID backlog, at times, the jail has housed three times as many. It's currently double its original capacity. Several of the inmates are represented by criminal defense attorney Jason Sheffield. He's grown frustrated with the court system's backlog.

JASON SHEFFIELD: Like thousands and thousands of people waiting at a train station with a train there and already full - these people are just standing and waiting to get in line to get on the train, but then that train is not even leaving the station. And that became the crisis.

KALLIS: To ease overcrowding, the sheriff wanted to move some detainees to Mississippi, but a court nixed the idea. Now he's asked other jails in Georgia for help, and some inmates have already been moved. The county wants to build a new jail, but it's still figuring out how to pay for it. Meanwhile, state lawmakers will continue to figure out if they can help the situation. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Kallis in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAN STREET BAND'S "THE TRAITOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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