Atlanta's looking to repurpose a jail. It's in a league with few other cities.

By Maggie Lee

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has signed legislation that kicks off a process to “transform” Atlanta’s nearly-empty jail into something else. With that, Atlanta is in a league with fairly few cities working on the same thing — what to do with a forbidding  building.

Speaking in front of the Atlanta City Detention Center on May 28, Bottoms said her dream is to see the building become a center of equity.

Atlanta's city jail is now housing about * people per night — and the city is looking to get out of the jailing business altogether. Credit: David Pendered

Atlanta’s city jail is now housing about 150 people or less per day — and the city is looking to get out of the jailing business altogether. Credit: David Pendered

“I see this as a place where we will have access to child care, GED training, vocational training, also perhaps some type of housing in this space, work space,” Bottoms said.

That morning, she was surrounded by grassroots activists, including formerly incarcerated people like Marilynn Winn of Women on the Rise, who have been leading the fight for years to transform the jail.

The legislation Bottoms signed says that the jail will transition to some kind of facility for the “benefit of all Atlanta residents, especially our most vulnerable.” The legislation sets up a task force to research ideas and advise how best to potentially revitalize the building.

The building has its plusses: it’s convenient to transit, centrally located.

But hulking at 17 stories beside the freeway, pierced by little slit windows, it can’t be mistaken for anything but a jail.

Figuring out what to do with shuttered correctional facilities is kind of new territory, said Nicole Porter, the director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices; and advocates for alternatives to incarceration. Porter has tracked what communities nationwide are doing with closed-down prisons.

For years from the early 1980s, “tough on crime” policies drove up U.S. incarceration rates, and the rate of jail- and prison-building.

But recently some cities, counties and states have started to rethink criminal justice policies in a way that’s slowing or reversing that trend.

Atlanta’s one of those places. For example, there’s the Atlanta-Fulton pre-arrest diversion initiative to link people with services when that’s more appropriate than arrest, and the end to cash bail for non-violent misdemeanors, plus other policy changes.  Bottoms said these policies aren’t being “soft” on crime, they mean the city is proactively getting “one step ahead” of crime, and giving people tools for the best decision-making.

When Atlanta police do arrest people, those people pretty much go to the Fulton or DeKalb jails — not Atlanta’s.

This is still an era of mass incarceration, Porter said, but in some places, policy is changing enough that there are opportunities to think of what comes after mass incarceration.

“The mayor anchoring a public conversation, establishing a commission where there will be a public dialog about what happens next with the jail, is new territory,” Porter said. “It’s encouraging. But it is a new approach, that very well could be helpful, [and] create public buy-in.”

Many of the places Porter has looked at are state prisons in rural areas, where communities are fearful of losing jobs and the pool of potential tenants for such large buildings is small.

But there are cities including Dallas and Multnomah County, Oregon (where Portland is), that have found themselves with empty prisons or jails recently. And buyers.

So did the west side of Manhattan, with the closure of Bayview Correctional Facility for women, after it was damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

“We immediately knew that Bayview needed to be the home of the New York City Women’s Building, because we knew that the power of turning that space, which was a space of pain and confinement, into a space of liberation and joy and justice was absolutely something we had to do,” said Pamela Shifman, executive director of the NoVo Foundation.

The foundation works to build a more just and fair world, in part by ending violence and discrimination against girls and women. NoVo was already looking for space when Bayview became available.

The Women’s Building will be home to nonprofits and a small number of for-profit mission-aligned entities. Tenants will benefit from sharing costs, collaborative effects from sharing space, and from rent reductions. NoVo also wants at least 35 percent of the construction work to be done by women.

(In fact, Atlanta’s legislation mentions an official visit to Bayview to learn from its leaders.)

What NoVo will reclaim is a building that’s now dark, that has a confined feel, that’s obviously a prison.

When NoVo won the bid for redevelopment, Shifman said, the first thing they did was consult with formerly incarcerated women — think interviews, focus groups, town halls, visits — and put the women’s leadership, expertise and viewpoints front and center.

The upshot is that physically, the building needs to be full of light, acceptable and welcoming to all people, regardless of body type, gender, and age, Shifman said. Details down to the front door will be important — it’ll need to be a door that welcomes people, brings a feeling of liberation, and doesn’t re-traumatize anyone.

But at the same time, NoVo has heard that it’s important to preserve one or two of the solitary confinement cells. Formerly incarcerated women have said they want that, to show people what it was like in the prison.

There was also a sort of formal reclamation of the building in 2017, via an event that included speaking, singing, and memorializing those who died there.

“I think the biggest answer of how to do it is to make sure that the experts of the process are the women who have experienced incarceration themselves,” Shifman said, “because they will be the ones who know how to transform the building into a building that feels safe and joyful and positive and not like a prison.”

Meanwhile, in Dallas, the spare rectangle of the closed-down and notorious Dawson State Jail is separated from Downtown skyscrapers by a freeway; but the skyline view from there is pretty good, and it’s steps from a river and green space.

Texas put it up for sale in 2017.  A developer who was looking into it as a homeless support center told the Dallas Morning News that he couldn’t get a fire lane around it and had to drop the plan.

Late last week, the paper broke the news that Texas had sold the building to a nonprofit, which is considering several options like office space or mixed-income housing.

Dallas City Councilman Phillip Kingston had been a prominent supporter of temporarily making it a homeless assistance facility: a place to get people out of tents and quickly into a building that’s at least safe and has a kitchen, plumbing, a roof and service providers who can help get folks into real transitional housing. A place where families experiencing homelessness could be sheltered together.

Speaking to SR before the sale news last week, Kingston said the idea was to alleviate acute homelessness, a short-term solution, not the long-term highest and best use of the property.

He said he had asked people in the real estate community for more long-term ideas.

“A better use would be some kind of market rate plus affordable housing if you can get to that,” Kingston said, if you can find a developer who is creative about using state and federal affordable housing incentives.

“Then you have to find somebody who thinks he or she can sell the idea of living in a former correctional facility to millennials looking for apartments,” he said.

Now, the Trinity Park Conservancy, the new owners, say they’re working with the community to discover the needs and vision for the area.

Atlanta's city jail, pictured in a 2017 file photo from a rally against immigrant family separation. In 2018, Atlanta ended a contract to house ICE detainees. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Atlanta’s city jail, pictured in a 2017 file photo from a rally against immigrant family separation. In 2018, Atlanta ended a contract to house ICE detainees. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Multnomah County Oregon’s Wapato Jail too, seems unlikely to become a homeless services center, despite talk about it as high up as in the state’s gubernatorial race last year.

Built in 2004, and neighboring tidy, new industrial buildings two miles or so outside Portland’s street grid, the jail was never actually used as a jail. Last year, a real estate firm bought it. The county couldn’t afford to transform it into something else, The Oregonian has reported. The company that bought it, the paper reports, was willing to wait and see if the county could come up with a plan for some kind of service center there. But that seems to have fallen through, and the company has applied for a demolition permit. The idea is to build a warehouse on the spot.

Back in Atlanta, the legislation that Bottoms signed was approved by Council by a vote of 12 to 1. Both of Buckhead’s district councilmen voted for it, but there’s also a call from some in their neighborhoods to do something different.

The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods is asking Bottoms and Atlanta City Council to consider transferring the jail to Fulton County, for locking up “serious offenders:” people with things like aggravated assault on their records. Buckhead residents have experienced a rise in property crimes  — and in part, they blame courts for letting out repeat offenders on signature bonds.

The BCN sent a letter with its request to Atlanta City Council, Bottoms and to the Fulton County Commission.

“The laudable goal of providing services, particularly to women in need, helping them regain their lives and dignity can be accomplished at another available city facility,” the letter reads in part. It suggests 72 Marietta Street, the former Downtown headquarters of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is now home to some city offices.

Meanwhile, the city is taking nominations for the jail task force through June 7. Bottoms will name up to 25 people to it, which should be done by about June 20. Then the task force will be asked to come up with recommendations within about a year after that.

Photo Gallery

In June, 2018, hundreds of people protested at the city jail under the banner “Families Belong Together,” one of many such events nationwide. In 2017, protesters picketed against ICE at City Hall. Photographer Kelly Jordan covered both:

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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