As the negotiations to possibly move some Fulton County Jail prisoners to the Atlanta City Detention Center to address overcrowding have stalled, officials with both municipalities said it’s time for action.
“I want us to find something in harmony to move forward. We have been doing a lot of talking, and at this point we need to find a solution,” said District 6 Fulton Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman, adding she agrees with her fellow commissioners that the county jail prisoners should be treated humanely and the city should offer wraparound services for the ones that qualify.
Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore added, “I think we have talked this to death. So how do we move forward?”
They spoke on the issue at the council’s public safety and legal administration committee’s May 27 work session with the county’s board of commissioners and sheriff. It was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the proposed city-county deal, Atlanta is requesting that 150 inmates be moved to the city jail, but Fulton wants to transfer 500 there. Regarding the negotiations, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Robb Pitts, the board chair, the main officials involved in the talks, each have said “the ball is in their court.”
Neither Pitts nor Bottoms attended the work session (Pitts was out of town and Bottoms sent the city’s deputy COO, Jestin Johnson, since she normally does not attend council work sessions). Johnson said the county has not sent back to the city the draft letter of intent Atlanta crafted with its original offer as the next step in the negotiations.
“Unfortunately, we’ve received no formal response on the proposed partnership, unfortunately no proposed edits, unfortunately no proposed areas for compromise,” he said. “We’ve also continued working with a variety of partners in Fulton County and have received (encouragement) to collaborate on these opportunities.”
As part of an overall plan to reform Atlanta’s justice system by making some minor crimes no longer jailable offenses, Bottoms plans to close the city jail and turn it into the Centers of Equity, which would provide diversion and/or accountability programs for individuals who commit minor crimes. But she may put that plan on hold to allow for the city-county jail deal.
The county jail, located on Rice Street in west Midtown and 32 years old, was built to house 2,591 prisoners. But as of May 26, Sheriff Patrick “Pat” Labat said, it was holding nearly 3,000, with 267 inmates having to sleep in makeshift beds called boats. Conversely, the 26-year-old detention center, four miles away downtown, can hold about 1,300 inmates but currently averages 150 or less per day.
Fulton is housing prisoners at four facilities: the main Rice Street jail, another on Jefferson Street in west Midtown and the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City. Until April 2020, it had also held inmates at the North Annex jail in Alpharetta.
In a May 12 interview, Pitts said it would cost the county $400 million to $500 million to build a new jail, and it would take five to seven years to construct.
In Atlanta’s efforts to overhaul its justice system, Johnson said, the city has communicated with Fulton’s court system, District 2 Commissioner Bob Ellis’ office, the Grady Health System, the Fulton Department of Behavioral Health, the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network, PAD, also known as the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative, Partners for Home and Emory Healthcare.
He said the city and county could partner on services/programs such as social and behavioral screening and needs assessment, post-crisis care, housing assistance, case management and nonemergency management.
Labat, who took office in January, spoke to the committee about his original plan to have the county buy the city jail from Atlanta the following month. Though the city may not sell its jail to Fulton, there may still be a chance for a short-term agreement to be reached on housing some of the county’s prisoners there.
“The county has … been very direct about what our needs are. We need 500 beds,” Labat said.
He is also in talks with Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens Sr. about leasing beds in that county and bringing inmates to Cobb’s jail, and the estimated annual cost is $5 million to $7 million.
Labat also addressed two issues that have been brought up in this possible deal. First, only about 10 of the nearly 3,000 prisoners in the county jail would qualify for a pre-arrest diversion program the city has been promoting based on the crimes they are accused of since most Fulton inmates are charged with serious crimes. Second, he said the proposal to house county prisoners in the city jail “is not mass incarceration in any way, shape, form or fashion.”
“When I was with the city, we housed some county detainees. … We’ve done it before,” said Labat, who ran the city’s corrections department for 10 years. “… What I am asking for is people who have already been arrested by treated like they’re human and we simply need the space.”
At its May 3 meeting, the council took action on the proposed deal by voting 15-0 to approve a resolution urging the city and county to reach an agreement by May 31, which looks unlikely.
If the deal is not done by then, a city-county joint committee will be created to evaluate and provide recommendations regarding justice reforms. The committee would include Bottoms, Labat and representatives of the council and board of commissioners.
At the May 27 work session, District 5 Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. also wanted to take action by motioning to have the commissioners vote on a resolution supporting the county further negotiating with the city about the jail deal. But District 4 Commissioner Natalie Hall said since all commissioners knew at least two commissioners could not attend the session because they would be out of town, it was inappropriate to have a vote.
After Arrington asked for a legal opinion about whether or not a vote could be taken, since approving the resolution at the board of commissioners’ next meeting June 2 would be after the May 31 deadline, County Attorney Kaye Burwell said no because it was a council work session and not a board meeting.
Based on comments from the public at past Fulton and Atlanta meetings regarding the issue, residents have been split on the issue, but lately more have spoken in favor of keeping the detention center open and using it for county prisoners.