After 13 male inmates at the Fulton County Jail tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID 19) in just over a week, officials and residents remain concerned about it becoming a hotspot for the virus.
“The jail is another huge challenge for us. Last night we actually reached out to the state to assist us with more (coronavirus) tests,” Dr. Elizabeth Ford, the Fulton Board of Health’s CEO, said.
Ford was one of about a dozen individuals who spoke at the Fulton Board of Commissioners’ April 1 meeting at Assembly Hall, with most talking remotely from their homes due to concerns over the virus.
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, which manages the jail, March 30 announced six inmates contracted COVID-19 this week after seven others tested positive the previous week. The prisoners who have tested positive are being treated in isolation, according to a sheriff’s office news release.
But that didn’t stop officials and residents who submitted public comments from expressing doubts over the safety and health of the remaining inmates there, since the jail has been cited for overcrowding in the past.
“I was alarmed to hear there are 13 Fulton County Jail inmates who have the coronavirus. This is a public health emergency,” said Marilyn Wynn of Atlanta, one of 11 residents who voiced their opinion on the jail situation, adding she urged Fulton to reduce its jail population by 500 by April 3.
Residents and officials pointed to efforts other two major cities had made to reduce their jail populations: Los Angeles decreased its number of inmates by 600 and New York made similar strides, according to news reports.
Alton Adams, Fulton’s deputy chief operating officer for public safety, said as if April 1, there were 2,648 inmates in the county jail, down 308 from March 1, a decrease of 10.4%. He added Rikers Island dropped by 9.8% from a month ago.
“Reducing the jail population is our number one priority,” Adams said.
He said in March Fulton Sheriff Ted Jackson released 52 inmates who were scheduled to be let go in the next month. Also, in response to the coronavirus, family/friend visitation to jail inmates has been cancelled until further notice, but lawyers, staff members and any other necessary personnel are allowed.
Fulton chair Robb Pitts said he’s been in talks with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms about the possibility of Fulton using the Atlanta Detention Center, which is not in use, to house prisoners as part of the county’s coronavirus response plan.
District 3 Commissioner Lee Morris asked Adams why the county’s Alpharetta detention center, which housed some inmates, was closed recently.
“The reason we closed that facility is we had 11 detainees held there on relatively minor offenses,” Adams said. “It required us to have a disproportionate number of deputies per prisoner.”
Fulton’s plan to reduce its jail population includes releasing some nonviolent prisoners and having them wear ankle monitors to keep track of them.
“I’ve been contacted by some Atlanta City Council members who are worried a little bit about letting folks out of the jail who may not need to be let out. Are we seeing a lot of signature bonds and other releases that we might not have seen absent this COVID-19 issue?” Morris said to Adams.
In response, Adams said, “I think the focus has been to release individuals responsibly. The individuals being released are nonviolent individuals and may have been in the jail for some type of technical violation.
“So the district attorney, judges and solicitor general have been very thoughtful about who’s being released. Additionally, we have increased our supply and the usage of our monitoring technology as we’ve done these released. We’ve employed the use of ankle monitors when needed.”
District 4 Commissioner Natalie Hall asked Adams if any inmates coming in or out of the jail could be tested for the virus, since the symptoms don’t show up right away.
“I wish we could but we don’t have enough kits. We’re just constrained by resources,” Adams said.
When asked by District 6 Commissioner Joe Carn about how the jail practices social distancing, in which individuals are supposed to be at least six feet apart, Adams said, “One ways is you restrict individuals to their cells.”
Carn then asked him about a possible plan to release 400 more inmates from the jail but would cost extra funds for the electronic/ankle monitoring.
“It is moving forward. We have a number of bond hearings under way,” Adams said, adding the county currently has “250 ankle monitors available and we have the ability to increase that number.”
He also confirmed it costs $7 or $8 a day for an individual to be released and wear an ankle monitor compared to $78 a day at the jail, adding each monitor costs about $6,000 overall.