A group that fought to close Atlanta’s jail makes a case for keeping it — as something different
By Maggie Lee
The folks of Women on the Rise are celebrating the planned closure of the Atlanta jail. Too many people were locked up there for too long with no good result, they say.
So it may be surprising that they’re also making a case to reuse the building that symbolizes that system.
WOTR filled a room with about 100 people at a public meeting on the Friday night after Halloween.
The crowd was there to learn about the jail closure and give some ideas what to do with it. Many in the room knew the Atlanta jail from the inside.
At the meeting door, postcards scattered on a table suggested alternative scenes: sun filtering through a canopy, plants, a workshop wall covered with hand tools, a baby drinking from a bottle. On easels, pictures of how other places have repurposed their closed jails.
Agnes “Bebe” Bennett, a WOTR member, said many people leave jail with no family to speak of, no job search help, no health care.
Bennett wants to see all kinds of services housed there together: job training, child care, mental and physical health care, elderly services, GED classes.
A city that thinks of itself as world-class needs to think out of the box, Bennett said. It could blossom, it could come up with new rules. Like turning its jail into this kind of center.
“We all have storms, we go through storms. If we keep moving, we’ll get through the storm,” Bennett said. “Bring somebody with you.”
WOTR Executive Director Marilynn Winn started campaigning to close the jail years ago. A formerly incarcerated woman, she is also now one of the members of a task force put together by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms that’s coming up with ideas for what to do with the old jail. And Bottoms has said she wants to see it become a center for equity.
The Atlanta City Detention Center can hold about 1,300 people, but on any given day, the population is less than 100. The city has decriminalized possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. The city has also ended a contract that saw some people held there by the federal government on immigration charges. Both the city and the state have loosened cash bail requirements, trying to cut the tie between having money and getting out of jail while awaiting a day in court for misdemeanors. A city-county pre-arrest diversion program helps channel some people away from jail. Folks arrested in Atlanta can go to the Fulton County jail. All these things together are coming close to putting the Atlanta jail out of business.
It would cost something like $99 to $155 million to rebuild the jail as a bright, welcoming building, according to an analysis done for the city. But there’s not even a sketch on the table yet — the process of getting public ideas is still going on. Demolition is still an option, and the city is not obliged to do what the task force recommends.
But the jail costs about $33 million to operate per year as it is now.
Tera Bell, campaign coordinator for WOTR, said it could save a lot of money to reuse a building.
“It can be accessible to a lot of people because of where it is,” Bell added.
The Atlanta City Detention Center is right beside the bus station and MARTA stops.
And it’s probably the only block in the city where a center that serves homeless or recently incarcerated folks wouldn’t have to face a fight from inhospitable neighbors.
Winn frames it as knocking down the jail but leaving it there. That is, knock down what it stood for and turn it into a place of equity, freedom and wellness.
For the physical building she sees, she uses words like “glass,” “brightness” and “quiet.”
“It was a space for pain, but it could be a space for healing,” Winn said.
Bennett said that such a center might have kept her from going to jail the 18 or 20 times that she did, years ago.
Make the jail an equity center, Bennett said. “I’ll volunteer there every day.”
There are more WOTR-hosted town hall meetings scheduled on re-imagining the jail:
Slides from Sept. 10, 2019 city presentation for the ACDC task force, including estimated cost of renovating the jail.