City DopeNews

Panel Raises Concerns About Conditions at the ACC Jail

Inside the Athens-Clarke County Jail before it opened in 2014. Credit: Joshua L. Jones/file

Athens voters ousted longtime Sheriff Ira Edwards and elected new Sheriff John Q. Williams in 2020 in large part because of reports of poor conditions at the county jail. But since Williams took over, an understaffing problem at the jail is growing even worse, according to a former jail employee who served under both administrations.

A 2019 Athens-Clarke County audit found that the jail was severely understaffed. The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement held a town hall meeting Mar. 31 on conditions at the jail.

The jail is fully staffed at 22 deputies, but under Edwards there were normally 13–17 deputies on duty per shift, and just 12 under Williams, according to Maj. Jessica Goings, a former jail commander who said she left the sheriff’s department in February for medical reasons. 

“As of last week, there were four units locked down with no officer inside them,” Goings said. This means inmates spent 23 hours per day inside their pods, with meals brought to them and, in some cases, no access to showers.

The jail is divided into dorm-style pods, each observed by a single deputy. If an altercation breaks out, the deputy calls in a backup team. But when the jail is short-staffed, “they did not know if anybody would respond,” according to Stephanie Maddox-Johnson, a former Athens-Clarke County internal auditor who investigated the jail’s staffing levels.

Maddox-Johnson also found that staffing levels “had a significant impact on employee morale,” leading to high turnover rates. To keep deputies from calling in sick, Edwards instituted a policy requiring a doctor’s note. He also pulled deputies off duty serving warrants to work at the jail, leading to a backlog of warrants.

Williams, then a sergeant with ACCPD, defeated fellow Democrat Edwards and Republican Robert Hare on a promise to improve morale within the department. “It all starts with how you treat people, and I think that’s the most important thing: treating people with dignity and respect. We need to change the culture,” he told Flagpole in 2020.

“What John Q. was saying, I bought it. I drank the Kool-Aid,” said Goings, who worked at the jail for 25 years. However, Williams put more emphasis on community outreach, warrants and the courthouse while allowing the jail to languish, according to Goings.

With little supervision, inmates began smuggling synthetic marijuana and fentanyl into the jail—sometimes with the help of deputies, Goings said. Last April, she said she noticed inmates “acting zombie-like, going into convulsions.” An internal investigation found that “there were officers who were part of bringing in the contraband,” she said. 

In addition, Goings, who is Black, said there is a racial divide within the department. “We do have white officers who are being sent back to the jail, and it is considered a form of punishment,” she said.

ACC Commissioner Mariah Parker said they’ve seen a spike in calls from constituents about conditions at the jail over the past six months, including complaints about high charges for phone calls, female deputies sexually harrassing male inmates, the mental health effects of lockdowns and lack of proper medical care.

Goings said she alerted higher-ups to her concerns, including filing about 15 complaints with human resources and speaking to Mayor Kelly Girtz and Manager Blaine Williams. No one did anything, though, she said.

As a constitutional officer and an elected official, the sheriff isn’t beholden to the county manager or the mayor and commission, but the commission sets the budget for the sheriff’s department. “The mayor and commission decides how much money the jail gets,” Parker said. “That is an opportunity for leverage.”

In particular, Parker criticized the longstanding practice of hiring a for-profit company to operate the jail’s phone system, for which ACC receives a portion of the profits. “Nobody should be making profits off of people who are just trying to stay in touch with their loved ones who are incarcerated,” they said.

The fiscal 2023 budget process is currently underway, with Girtz expected to release a proposed budget toward the end of the month, followed by public hearings and commission work sessions. “This is the time of year to address [issues of incarceration], more than any other time of year, and perhaps with this commission more than other commissions to come,” Parker said.

Williams was invited to attend the town hall meeting or send a representative, AADM co-founder Knowa Johnson said, but he declined. Williams also has not responded to a request for comment from Flagpole