INSTAGRAM PHOTOS OFFER GLIMPSE INSIDE NOTORIOUS GEORGIA JAIL
By Raven Rakia, The Appeal
It started with a photo on social media. During a video visitation last month at the DeKalb County Jail in Decatur, Georgia, people detained at the jail tried to show some of its conditions to their loved ones.
Malaya Abdullah-Tucker, who said her son is in the jail, took screenshots and posted them on Instagram. In one photo, a detainee holds up a sign that reads “DeKalb Jail is mistreating us!” Another shows what appears to be a meal served at the jail. A third shows a man holding up a sign that says “We sleep and breathe mold.”
“STAND FOR THESE YOUNG MEN!” Abdullah-Tucker wrote in her caption. “They are caged away with no voice! No matter what they are incarcerated for, they do not deserve to live in such treacherous conditions!”
The Instagram photos have helped spark recent protests, including one last Wednesday during which four protesters were arrested.
Yet some of the issues the prisoners raised have dogged the jail for more than a year. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, DeKalb County Sheriff Jeffrey Mann has requested more funding over the past two years to address mold and other issues at the jail. Last year, he announced a $1.5 million effort to address mold and improve plumbing at the facility.
Mann disputed the protesters’ allegations that the jail is unsanitary and said they should call with complaints instead. “[They’re] just out there creating a disruption rather than being productive and rather than calling, emailing, or going on the website,” he told reporters. “It’s not fruitful.”
But critics say their concerns about the jail go beyond its conditions. It has long been known as a so-called debtors’ prison because of the county’s willingness to jail people for unpaid fines and fees. In January 2015, the ACLU sued DeKalb County on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a teenager who was arrested for not being able to pay $838 in fines and fees related to a traffic violation. According to the suit, he was not offered counsel or an indigency hearing.
“Across the county, the freedom of too many people is resting on their ability to pay,” Nusrat Choudhury, an ACLU attorney who represents Thompson, said in a statement at the time. “We seek to dismantle that two-tiered system of justice, which disproportionately punishes people of color.”
When the plaintiffs and defendants settled the lawsuit two months later, DeKalb County agreed to have its judges use a “bench card” that reminds them of the legal alternatives to jail and the procedure to figure out if a defendant is able to pay a fine. In reforms that followed the settlement, thecounty granted residents six weeks to pay off fines, and the option of working them off with community service (at $8/hour).
But according to the ACLU of Georgia, some of the problems persist. At the time of the lawsuit, traffic violations were usually handled in the DeKalb County Recorders Court, where the county charged a $25 court fee on top of the fine for each traffic citation. The Recorders Court was ultimately shut down and replaced with the traffic division of DeKalb County State Court, but that court reinstated the fee.