Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is holding off on her plan to close the Atlanta City Detention Center and transform it into the Centers of Equity, at least temporarily.
With new Fulton County Sheriff Patrick “Pat” Labat lobbying hard for the city to sell the detention center to the county to help address the Fulton’s jail overcrowding problem, Bottoms is in talks with Robb Pitts, chair of the Fulton Board of Commissioners, about reaching an agreement to house some of the county jail’s prisoners at the detention center on a short-term basis.
“Based upon those discussions, we developed a draft letter of intent, which was shared with you all last week as the (committee) chair has mentioned,” said Jon Keen, the city’s COO, speaking on behalf of Bottoms’ office. “In addition, the mayor met with Chairman Pitts twice to discuss the draft letter of intent. We are open to feedback from Fulton County. We’re open to their desired edits and remain hopeful that alignment will occur, which ultimately will lead to a formal intergovernmental agreement to be authorized by the city council and Fulton County Board of Commissioners.”
Keen provided an update on the situation at the Atlanta City Council’s public safety and legal administration committee’s April 26 meeting, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since soon after taking office, Bottoms has wanted to close the detention center and turn it into the Centers of Equity, which would provide diversion programs for individuals who previously would be jailed but could be allowed to enroll in those initiatives under the city’s amended justice system ordinances.
But since taking office in January, Labat has pushed hard to request the city sell the detention center to the county to address the Fulton jail’s overcrowding issues. He even gave the committee his purchase pitch at its Feb. 18 work session.
The county jail, located on Rice Street and 32 years old, was built to house 2,591 prisoners. But as of March 4, it was holding 2,942, with 234 inmates having to sleep in makeshift beds called boats. Conversely, the 26-year-old detention center can hold about 1,300 inmates but currently averages 150 or less per day.
In the city-county deal, how many prisoners the detention center holds temporarily could be a key part of the negotiations. In an April 6 letter obtained by the Neighbor (see above left), Pitts wrote Fulton would like to house 500 county jail prisoners at the detention center, through a reentry program.
But Keen said the city’s draft letter of intent with the county states the city is currently offering 150 Fulton inmates to be housed at the detention center, also through a reentry initiative. The program would be for prisoners with six months or less left in their sentences.
Some council members speaking at the April 26 meeting said they feel like the detention center should start housing county jail prisoners as soon as possible, given the deplorable conditions they’ve reported from visits to the latter facility.
“The program for 150 people, you know, that’s something I would support. I think it’s a great idea,” Post 1 at-large Councilman Michael Julian Bond said. “But having toured the facility at Rice Street, and seeing the humanitarian crisis there, I’m really more concerned about alleviating the horrible conditions these human beings are underneath right at this very moment we speak.”
At the council’s April 19 meeting, Bond’s resolution calling for establishing an Atlanta-Fulton joint committee to look into the city possibly selling the detention center to the county (Legislative Reference No. 21-R-3259) was tabled by an 11-3 vote. The resolution could be voted on at the council’s next meeting May 3 and was tabled so the council members siding with the mayor could have a representative present her case to the committee at its April 26 meeting.
Though the city and county could soon reach an agreement on housing Fulton’s prisoners at the detention center, Keen said the deal must be one that follows Bottoms’ plan for justice system reform.
“The mayor has been clear on her vision and position related to justice reforms and reimagining (the detention center),” he said. “She’s also been transparent and clear on her willingness to be part of the solution to Fulton County’s immediate problems in ways that align with that vision, but also with an expectation that Fulton County will provide a comprehensive and feasible plan related to their immediate challenges.”
Two council members said Bottoms’ idea to close and repurpose the detention center is a good one, but because it will require years to implement, taking quick action on the Fulton jail’s overcrowding issue is important.
“I don’t think anybody thinks this idea the mayor has is bad,” District 4 Councilwoman Cleta Winslow said. “ … I don’t think it’s a bad idea, personally, and this idea has been talked about or the last three years. Do you know how many people could have been helped in the last three years if just a pilot program, if it was for 75 people over at the (city) jail, could have been put into play where we could have seen some benefits from this type of program?”
District 12 Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, the committee’s chair, said in the past several months she has met with Fulton justice system leaders, including law enforcement, judges and attorneys, to get a better understanding of how it works and what its needs are.
“We cannot say symbolically we’re going to close (the detention center) and then it sits there for the next one or two years and nothing’s done,” she said. “In the meantime you’ve got people over there sitting in the jail in Fulton County. Why would we do that? … We’ve got to look at this holistically. The crime is still there and there are a lot of things going on.”
Over the past four months, residents voicing their opinions on the issue during each meeting’s or work session’s public comment portion have been split. During the April 19 meeting, 75 said they were in favor of keeping it open and 20 said they want it shuttered. At the April 26 meeting, 70 individuals said they support keeping the detention center open and 48 want it closed.
But at previous meetings and work sessions, more residents said they favored closing the detention center.
“Keep the jail open,” one woman said at the April 26 meeting. “I think the mayor’s idea is a good one, but we (temporarily) need to keep the city jail open. We have too much crime in the city, and we need the space.”
One man added, “The policy of putting cages over communities does nothing but harm the communities. Thanks … for repurposing the jail.”