Inmates sleeping on floors, communication devices made from plastic bottles and inmate files strewn haphazardly are some the the shortfalls Fulton County Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman saw firsthand during a recent tour.
After touring the Fulton County Jail, Abdur-Rahman said the facility needs to be rebuilt.
“I saw what most Fulton County citizens have never seen, and if they did, they would be horrified,” Abdur-Rahman said. “There are inmates sleeping on the floor because of overcrowding, and the living conditions are worse than what we see in third-world countries or war zones.”
Sheriff Patrick Labat, who took office Jan. 1, escorted the commissioner through the entire facility Feb. 10, so she could learn firsthand why he has asked the Board of Commissioners for additional dollars to renovate the overcrowded and outdated Rice Street jail in Northwest Atlanta.
During the tour, the commissioner, witnessed makeshift communication system — made with string and bottles — that officers use to pass critical messages to each other from one floor to the next through a shoot. There is also a need for updated, working cameras which several corridors are missing.
Inmate files that should be digital are years behind in filing, and many are housed in a condemned annex adjacent to the jail which looks like an Occupational Safety and Health Administration nightmare. In the main kitchen, the dry-foods storage room has water leaking from the ceiling and a large commercial pots-and-pans dishwasher has been sitting idle for years. Sheriff staff members say they are actively working to upkeep the cell blocks, showers and other spaces, to prevent mold from setting in.
However, it is not just the inmates that are at risk. Detention officers and other staff are working in untenable conditions.
“We want our employees not only to be safe but be functional. I saw logbooks that look like they were from the seventies,” Abdur-Rahman said. “This is not the correct use of taxpayers’ money.”
“Quite frankly, we need a new building. We are throwing good money after bad, and we keep providing ‘Band-Aid’ solutions to an ‘open-heart surgery’ condition,” she said. “We have an obligation to treat inmates fairly and humanely, and to make sure they are safe, and that the staff that is safe too.”
Labat knows it’s a heavy lift to ask citizens to pay for a new jail, which is why he says he is “peeling back the onion” to expose just how bad things are, and how much money it is costing taxpayers with little return on their investment.
“We need commissioners to lead the way and help transfer the message to our communities,” Labat said. “Just because someone gets locked up doesn’t mean they should be treated any less than human.”
“As a Sheriff’s Office, we need to be in a space that we can do better. When we are in this space together, creating partnerships, we can then recreate what the future will look like, and that includes a new facility,” Labat said.
The Rice Street (main) jail opened in 1988, built for a capacity of 1,400 beds. A court-approved consent decree from 2006 caps the population at 2,500. However, the jail has consistently been overcrowded and since that time, the county has spent more than $1 billion to replace or repair plumbing, the heating and air system, elevators, wiring and cell-door locks.
“I heard the sheriff’s pleas to the Commission during our recent budget meeting,” Abdur-Rahman said. “But now that I have seen with my own eyes? It is deplorable. At the end of the day, we need a new jail.”
The commissioner said she wants a feasibility study conducted because she believes the cost of a new jail will ultimately save money.
“Taxpayers are not going to see a return on the current jail; in the long run the taxpayer is losing money because they are putting money in a system and jail that is archaic,” Abdur-Rahman said.