By Guest Columnist JOE BEASLEY, a human rights activist in Atlanta and founder of the Joe Beasley Foundation
The taxpayers of Atlanta are losing over $30 million annually trying to maintain the Atlanta City Detention Center. We must ask whether that remains a good investment and, if not, how to create something that would be worthy of our great city and its historic legacy. I believe we need to strive for more.
I spoke with the chief of the facility and he informed me that the jail was built to house 1,300 people. Presently, only about 140 are housed there on a daily basis. Clearly this is unsustainable.
I also spoke with the sheriff of Fulton County about the conditions at his jail. As always, I wanted to know the racial makeup of those being held there. He informed me that approximately 88 percent are African American. This percentage can be extrapolated for the entire metropolitan area, indeed the entire state of Georgia. Something is seriously wrong with this picture. The correct answer to the problem is not, “If you do the crime, you must do the time.”
Given the myriad of challenges facing Atlanta today, the city jail must be repurposed. I certainly understand that this means a potential threat to the jobs the city jail provides but, fortunately, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has alerted her personnel team to find suitable jobs so those working there remain employed with the city.
So what, then, should be our focus when it comes to providing for those in need?
Affordable housing is on everybody’s mind as the city is undergoing a second gentrification. The first occurred beginning in the late 1940s when the descendants of slaves were forced off the plantations with the coming of mechanized farming. By the mid-1970s, the population of Atlanta had risen to over 70 percent African American. This led to Atlanta being referred to as “Chocolate City” all over the nation.
The city’s population has changed over the years. Census estimates recorded in July 2017 show Atlanta’s African American population has fallen to 52 percent, while the white population has risen to 40 percent. This demographic shift is evidenced by the razor thin victories of the last two African American candidates for mayor.
I decided to take a look at the state of this second gentrification myself recently and drove down Joseph Boone Boulevard (named for my great friend). I observed the level of construction activity and decided to stop and speak with the superintendent to see how many people from the area are working. I was bewildered to learn that only seven people had been hired from the community.
A day earlier, while looking out of my office window on Northside Drive, I observed the construction that is taking place on the old Herndon Homes property. I went to the construction trailer and spoke with the superintendent. He told me that a “live, work and play” community is being built. Upon leaving his trailer, I drove around the construction site and did not observe a single African American working on the project.
When I spoke with the supervisor and workers who are building Cook Park, I asked them if they knew Michael Julian Bond – the representative of that site who serves a citywide post on the Atlanta City Council. They didn’t have a clue. When I further inquired if they knew the name Julian Bond, they were baffled. I told them that his statue would be placed in the park they are building. Additionally, the Bond home is located a “stone’s throw” from the construction trailer.
My exploration led me to the conclusion that the city jail should be retrofitted to serve as transitional housing, a place where those who are recovering from crisis get help to make the transition to earning a living wage and living independently. I visited the Gateway Center, which underwent such a makeover several years ago. I was dismayed to see so many people languishing outside with no place to go.
Is the glass half full or half empty? This is the proverbial dilemma we have wrestled with since time immemorial.
Many feel that the city jail must remain a facility under the control of the criminal justice community – seeking to pursue an arrangement with some other law enforcement jurisdiction where people are caged in a den of despair. They see the glass as half empty since they have given up on the fundamental goodness of all people. They would prefer to build a wall rather than a bridge. Let’s become bridge builders!
If we can see the glass as half full, we can forge a link between Bankhead and Buckhead that will approach Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of the “beloved community.” A community where those who are behind bars will not be so out of balance. There is something dangerously wrong when almost 90 percent of those incarcerated in our area are of African descent.
Needless to say, I understand that there are those who engage in detrimental behavior harmful our community. We are all aware of some of the brazen crimes that have been committed recently that deeply affect people on both sides of I-20. Those who willfully engage in this type of activity must pay the price for their deeds.
However, I believe that a significantly smaller number of our community members would seek to break the law if they are given the opportunity to make a decent wage and have adequate housing. And, unfortunately, many of those who are given no choice and decide against criminal activity are left to suffer alone.
Over 60 people have died this year on the streets of Atlanta of exposure to the elements. We are at a crossroads regarding affordable housing in Atlanta. Let’s make the soon-to-be-former jail a place where we can begin to bring hope and rebuild people who need a little help.