The Fulton County government has plans to expand on its main jail facility by quickly building a new 60-cell structure that would house 120 inmates, even serving as isolated housing for prisoners who contract COVID-19 or another infectious disease.
But at a price tag of $23 million, with the funds coming from the $104 million the county received in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Emergency Response (CARES) Act monies, it may be too much.
“$23 million for 60 modular pods to protect our inmates, to protect our community,” District 6 Fulton Commissioner Joe Carn said. “I get that, but we won’t spend $1 million on disposable facemasks for residents who are not incarcerated. I don’t think that’s a lot of bang for the buck. I think we need to think more logically.”
So at its May 20 recess meeting, the Fulton Board of Commissioners voted 5-1 to delay the decision at least until its next meeting June 3. District 3 Commissioner Lee Morris dissented. The meeting was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vote came after Morris read an email sent to him, the other commissioners and board Chair Robb Pitts from Michael Turpeau, president of The Aaron Group Inc., during the meeting. The Aaron Group is the developer that had the winning bid for the jail project but lost out on the deal because it could not meet Fulton’s requirements on bonds associated with it. The project then went to the second-most favorable bidder, ECT.
“I thought on balance, the project should have happened,” Morris said in an interview after the meeting when asked why he voted against tabling the item.
After Morris motioned to approve the project and District 2 Commissioner Bob Ellis seconded it, other commissioners spoke out against making that decision, with Carn saying, “This whole thing smacks of a potential lawsuit. I think we should put a hold on it until we have all the facts.”
Then Pitts made a substitute motion to delay the vote and it was approved.
A possible COVID-19 outbreak at the jail remains a concern for Fulton officials and residents after 31 of the 105 prisoners tested for the virus were found to have contracted it.
Carn asked Alton Adams, Fulton’s deputy chief operating officer for public safety, if the remaining inmates (over 2,000) couldn’t be tested at a time when the county was about to reach the 100,000-person mark on the number of residents tested overall.
Adams said all the inmates weren’t originally tested at once in late March or early April since the county at the time didn’t have enough testing kits to handle all of them.
District 5 Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. questioned why the jail expansion was needed since the county is housing 96 inmates at its Rice Street facility and 24 more at its Union City one, the latter of which has a capacity of 400. Also, Fulton has already spent about $30 million each on the Union City facility and on a new animal shelter building.
But County Attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker said there was some urgency to approving the jail expansion, so it could be approved at the next meeting.
“There have been some risk management and operational health issues. … And the funds should be spent by the end of the year as part of COVID-19 funds,” she said.