Following overwhelming opposition from residents and others, the plan to spend $23.3 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to expand the Fulton County Jail is dead.
“I don’t think there’s much of an appetite for this jail thing at all here,” District 6 Fulton Commissioner Joe Carn said. “ … I’ve been hearing clearly this is not the time or the place or a good allocation of funds. … I think there are better uses of these funds and look at occasions for this funding with the additional (funds) that will be freed up with this jail proposal. I think we should take it off the table if there’s no appetite for it and spend it on things people need.”
Carn spoke during the Fulton Board of Commissioners’ June 3 meeting at Assembly Hall in downtown Atlanta, where the expansion plan was removed from the agenda at the start of the meeting before being added back onto the agenda so it could be defeated by an official board vote. Most commissioners and some county department leaders participated remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At its May 20 recess meeting, the board was going to vote on the plan, which involved expanding 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.
The strategy was also put in place to address overcrowding at the jail, which had 2,537 inmates as of June 3, according to Anna Roach, the county’s COO.
But at a high price tag, with the funds coming from the $104 million the county received in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Emergency Response (CARES) Act monies, the group voted 5-1 to delay the decision at least until its next meeting June 3, with District 3 Commissioner Lee Morris dissenting.
At the June 3 meeting, all but one of about 30 individuals who actually spoke (another 10 were scheduled to speak but did not, possibly due to technical issues) during the public comment portion said they’re against the plan.
“In 2019 the recommendations of this task force received resounding support to reduce the jail population. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives have not been realized,” said Moki Macias, executive director of the Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative, a program that aims to provide alternative strategies for repeat offenders arrested for crimes of poverty or offenses stemming from addiction or mental health problems. “… I am deeply disappointed to see a proposal to expand the Fulton County Jail. We all need to be laser focused on how we can reduce the jail population.
“There are strategies in place and additional strategies needed. To see there will be 2,600 inmates by October of this year is a number that represents despair. It’s a real disappointment to see how this jail is functioning and how it’s causing problems for people of color and people with mental health issues.”
Those who spoke against the jail plan said they believed the funds should go to help residents negatively impacted by the outbreak with relief for more virus testing, other healthcare initiatives, meal delivery services and other programs.
So after the jail item was removed from the agenda, the board voted 7-0 to approve $9 million in a second round of the county’s COVID-19 relief funds provided by the feds. It will go toward emergency assistance for rent/mortgage and utilities payments, meals and groceries delivered to senior citizens and other services.
“The $9 million is good progress,” Carn said. “I think we’re going to need a higher number within that (relief fund program). … There are other things that will bring tremendous pressure on the county residents.”
He also made a motion to add $3 million in CARES Act funding to the $5 million the county is already spending to purchase personal protective equipment, but it failed when no one seconded it. If approved, the $3 million supplement would have paid for about 200,000 residents to receive the equipment, Carn said.
At the end of the meeting, the board voted 6-1 to add the jail expansion item back onto the agenda so it could be denied. Once it was reinstated to the agenda, Carn moved for it to be denied and District 2 Commissioner Bob Ellis seconded the motion before Morris spoke up.
“I was torn when this thing first came up because it was an awful lot of money, and I wasn’t sure of a potential for a second wave (of the virus),” he said. “But if a second wave comes, it will be too late to build the expansion. We may beg Atlanta to take our prisoners in its detention center. We may beg others to take our prisoners. … That’s a little scary to me. But if there’s not a second wave, there’s no doubt the jail will fill back up. The summer’s coming upon us and it’s going to get crowded again. … Those are the reasons I’ve been supportive of this. If the second wave comes and you don’t have the jail (expansions), you could be sorry.”
Carn responded by saying the jail expansion building, which would hold only 60 cells and up to 120 inmates, “is not going to make much of an impact.”
The board then voted 6-1 to deny the expansion plan. Just before the vote, board Chair Robb Pitts said he and County Manager Dick Anderson are discussing an alternative to the expansion strategy. Pitts added he hopes some of the COVID-19 relief monies that were going to go to the jail will be spent on virus testing and the hospitality industry.
“Many of their jobs are gone forever, so they could be used for training (for other jobs),” he said.