Trump’s court time in Fulton County will be quick. Others die waiting

Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, GeorgiaGetty Images

In the coming days, Donald Trump will turn himself in to police in Georgia. His initial brush with the local criminal justice system is expected to last just hours – most other defendants are not so lucky.

Authorities announced on Wednesday that Mr Trump and his fellow 18 defendants are “expected” to be booked at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta before being arraigned at the courthouse, though they warned “circumstances may change”.

He must appear by 25 August to face charges of trying to overturn the result of the 2020 election in the state.

The local sheriff, Pat Labat, has said that officials will follow “normal practices” when processing Mr Trump.

But experts said he will probably have a very different experience to those who languish in the county’s notoriously unsafe jail for weeks, months or even years while awaiting trial.

In the US, criminal defendants wait in a jail if they have been arrested, are awaiting trial without bail, or are serving a short sentence behind bars. Prisons are where criminals serve longer sentences after conviction.

Hundreds of people were held at Fulton County Jail for more than 90 days because they had yet to be formally charged or could not afford to pay the bail bond required for their release, according to a September 2022 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The report also found 117 people had waited in jail for more than a year because they had not been indicted; 12 had been held for two years for the same reason.

“It’s essentially been overcrowded since it was built,” said Fallon McClure of the ACLU of Georgia. “This has just been a perpetual cycle over and over for years.”

‘Rapidly eroding’ conditions

Built in 1985 to house around 1,300 inmates, Fulton County Jail has held more than 3,000 people in recent years.

The jail provides “unhygienic living conditions” that have led to outbreaks of Covid-19, lice and scabies, a report by the Southern Center for Human Rights said. It found inmates were “significantly malnourished” and dealing with a condition called cachexia, also known as wasting syndrome.

Waiting in these dilapidated conditions has proven deadly for some.

Last week, a 34-year-old man was found unconscious in a medical unit cell at the jail, where he had been held since 2019. He was resuscitated, but then died at the hospital, according to the Fulton County Sheriff’s office.

He was the sixth person this year to die in the county jail system in 2023.

Noni Battiste-Kosoko was just 19 when she died in Fulton County Jail custody in July after being arrested on a less serious misdemeanour charge. Deputies found her unresponsive in her cell in the Atlanta City Detention Center, an additional space the county is leasing to alleviate overcrowding at the main jail.

Battiste-Kosoko’s family has still not been given a cause for her death or found out the results of her post-mortem examination, her family’s lawyer told the BBC.

“There has been a consistent and unsettling pattern of poor healthcare and inmates dying at the jail under mysterious circumstances,” said Roderick Edmond.

The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office told the BBC it was still awaiting a final report from the autopsy, and that it was investigating the incident.

Battiste-Kosoko’s death came just before Fulton County this month agreed to pay $4m (£3.1m) to the family of a man who died in the jail covered in bed bug bites.

An independent autopsy found 35-year-old Lashawn Thompson died in the jail’s psychiatric wing last September because of “severe neglect” from jail staff. His death sparked an investigation from the US Department of Justice into conditions at the jail, access to medical care and excessive use of force by officers.

An escalating issue

When it was built in the 1980s, the jail was “state of the art”, said Dr Edmond, the attorney. “But it is no longer. That jail needs to be demolished and the citizens of Fulton County need to dig deep and pay the tax dollars to build a brand new jail.”

The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office itself has acknowledged conditions at the building are “dilapidated and rapidly eroding”. It has also called for the construction of a new $1.7bn jail.

“There’s been a lot of talk of cleaning it up,” said Ms McClure of the ACLU. “We have not really seen or heard anything particularly significant. It seems like a lot of posturing.”

Ms McClure said a number of factors have led to overcrowding in the Fulton County Jail system. For one, people charged with misdemeanours in the county are arrested and taken into custody, unlike some other Georgia jurisdictions, where defendants are generally released and given a future court date for minor offences, she said.

The county has also faced a backlog of cases because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and most recently, a slew of indictments under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Rico) Act unrelated to the Trump case, she said.

Mr Trump and his co-defendants were charged for violating the same statute this week. But indictments under the law, passed in the 1970s to help take down organised crime groups like the mafia, are complex and resource intensive, experts say.

“There’s the assumption that other cases aren’t getting indicted because this is taking up so much time,” Ms McClure said.

‘Kid gloves’

Mr Trump is likely to bypass all of this dysfunction when he is processed in Fulton County, experts said.

While prosecutors have not released details of how Mr Trump will be booked this time, there are clues from the expedited process at his three previous arraignments in New York, Florida and Washington DC, where he has denied all charges.

Upon arriving at these courthouses, Mr Trump had his basic information and fingerprints taken like any defendant. But he was sequestered away from other criminal defendants and quickly whisked up to a courtroom, surrounded by Secret Service and US Marshals. Authorities have cited heightened security concerns in making these arrangements.

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Unlike many defendants, he has not had a mugshot taken nor has he been handcuffed. Authorities have said there is no need for either, since there are plenty of photos of Mr Trump already and he is not considered a flight risk.

When his hearings have concluded, his protective detail have quickly escorted him back to a waiting motorcade, which takes him to his private plane.

Some version of this routine is likely to play out in Fulton County, experts said.

The contrast in experiences rankled some defence attorneys who have worked in Fulton County for years.

“He’s gonna be treated with kid gloves because he’s a former president,” said Keisha Steed, an Atlanta-area criminal defence attorney who once worked as a public defender.

“And our clients are going to be kicked in the teeth.”


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