By Maggie Lee
Fulton County is trying to get inmates out of “boats.” That is, a kind of human-size plastic bin that holds a mattress at night and can be stacked during the day. And it’s what lockups like Fulton’s Rice Street jail use when they’re out of bunks.
“It is an emergency, period,” Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said, speaking Wednesday at the commission’s last regular meeting.
The county’s total jail population across several facilities topped 3,000 some days in June. Fulton’s capacity would be about that if all the beds in all the facilities were usable. But because of the need to isolate some folks for health or safety reasons, it’s too much. About 180 boats were in use at Rice Street at the end of last month.
Alton Adams, Fulton’s deputy COO for public safety, told the Commission that overall, they’d like to get access to 250 beds.
So the county is looking around for more space. Gwinnett has agreed to take up to 50 inmates at $68 per person per day; and talks are going on with Forsyth and Douglas counties as well.
But renting jail space elsewhere is expensive and complex. Officers will end up working overtime. Other counties can turn down medically fragile inmates. These other counties’ jails may be further away from inmates’ families and attorneys.
So for the medium term at least, Fulton is also working on trimming its jail population. The Commission approved hiring what they’re calling an “expeditor:” a team that will comb through the records on the people in jail, and figure out if some of them might be good candidates for speeding out from behind bars.
Last month, Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson said there were probably about 500 people who could be managed out of the jail: folks who have been there more than a year, people who need to be transferred to state prisons and those booked on misdemeanors.
He also said that the reason the jail population is higher is a decrease in judges granting “signature bonds:” letting people bond out of jail on the promise of coming back for their hearing.
But that’s come after a steady drumbeat out of Buckhead, and the Atlanta police for that matter, complaining that judges misjudge who ought to be let out on a signature bond — and that Fulton County judges are letting dangerous people out on the street who commit more crimes.
Pitts himself lives in Buckhead.
“I guarantee you that there are at least 200 people in our jail who don’t even belong there. Urinating in public, spitting, cursing. Occupying a bed space,” Pitts said. “The city passed legislation to let them out, we passed legislation to let them out. Some idiot went out and did something up north in Buckhead, where I live, everybody got upset, the judges panicked, we panicked, locking them up. Result: jails are full.”
The county isn’t trying to have another jail overcrowding crisis so bad that it attracts federal ire — it took the county about 11 years to get out from under federal supervision for awful jail conditions, in a case that ended in 2015.
The review of inmates “should be routine, this should be happening anyway,” said northeast Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann. She said she hopes this expeditor process ends up informing the county’s process permanently.
It’s not clear if the medium-term fix will turn into something for the long-term, though.
Adams said that after the expeditor process, he anticipates coming back to the Commission with recommendations about better processes and data-gathering.
But Pitts said there’s relatively little the commission can do on this problem and that there’s been finger-pointing among the Commission, judges, the county DA and the sheriff. Those are all elected offices, and no one of them can really tell any of the others what to do. (Though, the county commission is in charge of approving each one’s budget.)
“While they’re pointing fingers, the inmates are in boats in the jail. The only reason I am involved in this right now is I’m sick of this discussion every four or five years,” Pitts said.
Meanwhile, Atlanta has a Downtown jail. The city’s trying to empty and close it in the name of fighting mass incarceration, and, by the way, saving money. Pitts has his eye on that real estate.
Pitts said he’s had two brief conversations about the issue with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and that the county’s manager has met with the city’s chief operating officer.
“So, we’re making some initial progress towards the possibility, I want to underscore ‘possibility,’ of utilizing some space at the Atlanta Detention Center, but not just for housing prisoners,” Pitts said.
Pitts said he’s well aware of the mayor’s interest in providing holistic services in the space.
“All of this is up in the air now,” he said.
Atlanta at-large City Councilman Matt Westmoreland was one of six sponsors of August 2018 legislation calling to close the jail and discuss its future. The issue had come up on his radar during his first budget cycle as a Council member, when he saw that the city was paying $33 million annually to run a Department of Corrections to oversee a fairly small jail population.
“This is a very large building that’s right next to a MARTA station and a whole bunch of empty parking lots, and it has the potential to be something really positive for the city,” Westmoreland said.
But he also said that in the short term, as long as the city jail is still open and staffed anyway, he’s open to helping Fulton in some way temporarily, but would defer to the city and county leaders who are talking now.
Bottoms’ office did not respond to a request for comment on any possibility of Fulton County’s use of the jail in some way.
On July 2, Bottoms announced the 25 members of the Reimagining Atlanta City Detention Center Task Force. It includes folks from some of the organizations that have been lobbying for jail closure for years, as well as some star power like rapper and actor T.I.
Its job is to evaluate a use for the jail that could benefit the entire community.
Its first meeting is on Tuesday July 16 at 4 p.m. at City Hall in Old Council Chambers. The public is invited to attend.
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: