The Atlanta Prison Farm. (Photo by Sarah Alkhayyel.)

By Guest Columnist MARGARET SPALDING, founding member of the South River Forest Coalition and executive director of the South River Watershed Alliance.

“Prison Farming” is a product of the Jim Crow era that endures to this day. A formalized system of free labor and servitude, the Atlanta Prison Farm was defined by racist, inhumane practices, violence, overcrowded, wretched conditions and grueling labor that often led to the death of inmates. Having provided great economic prosperity to the city, the Atlanta Prison Farm functioned until 1990. 

Documented to be an overcrowded “ungodly mess” and health hazard, the Prison Farm offers a glimpse into Atlanta, the state of Georgia and, indeed, our country’s history that cannot be dismissed or forgotten. 

Prisoners, often arrested for drunkenness, worked on countless municipal construction projects including building many of the roads we drive on today. Now, the historic and ongoing inequity that plagues the surrounding area is being exposed to fresh eyes and new generations as the Prison Farm property is poised to be leveled and replaced with yet another law enforcement complex.

This month, the Atlanta Regional Commission kicked off a community input and pre-planning process for protecting greenspace in southeast Atlanta and southwest DeKalb County, an area also known as the South River Forest and of which the old Atlanta Prison Farm property is a linchpin. 

The Atlanta Community Press Collective has done extensive research on the Prison Farm. Georgia Tech grad students are soon to release full architectural renderings of the barracks and a preservation strategy to “connect the lived experience of former inmates to the physical space that we see today.”

Margaret Spalding is a founding member of the South River Forest Coalition and the executive director of the South River Watershed Alliance.

Things are looking promising for the South River Forest, you might think. Past Injustice Hidden Deep in Atlanta’s Forest and present conditions are being exposed alongside initiatives to protect the environment and people. But destructive acts are easily repeated in vulnerable communities. Last month, a Land Disturbance Permit #1245564 was submitted by the Atlanta Police Foundation to the DeKalb County Department of Planning and Sustainability for the development of a massive police and fire training facility, slated to be the largest in our country, on the historic Prison Farm property — much of which is a mature forest that protects Intrenchment Creek, the South River’s largest urban tributary.

Because this site is an island of Atlanta-owned property surrounded by unincorporated DeKalb County, the fate of people’s backyards is being determined by elected officials that they cannot vote for. The proposed facility, its gun ranges, explosives, chemical and toxic contamination of air, soil, and waterways, the clear-cutting of urban forest, erasure of significant prehistoric and historic injustices, and the degradation of public land and valuable natural resources are a perpetuation of disinvestment in south DeKalb County communities and their environment. Environmental threats aside, the benefits of the proposed training facility, as argued by some, will never serve the people of unincorporated DeKalb. The burden should not be theirs to bear. 

Leaders have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in southeast metro Atlanta for the benefit of marginalized communities and their environment. Amid disparate and widespread criticism, will the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County continue to suffocate the southeast metro area with crumbling infrastructure, landfills, unenforced illegal dumping, prisons and detention centers, ammunition and explosives ranges, industrial complexes and a blanket of neglect? Or will they confront historic and ongoing inequity and injustice so that we may examine and reflect upon who we are and what we would like to become?

The South River Forest Coalition encourages you to learn about the South River Forest concept as the Atlanta Regional Commission kicks off its public input and pre-planning process with the help of The Nature Conservancy, SRWA and others.

Click here to take part in the South River Forest public input survey.

Would you like to write a guest column for SaportaReport? The SR team strives to uplift and amplify the diverse perspectives in our community, and we want to hear from you! Email Editor Derek Prall to discuss the specifics.

Margaret Spalding is a founding member of the South River Forest Coalition and the executive director of the South River Watershed Alliance.

Join the Conversation


  1. Though I have advocated for years to see improved facilities for police and fire training and the type of recruit housing that might be found on a college campus, I can’t express strongly enough how disappointed I am with the Atlanta Police Foundation’s choice of this location, or the secretive process they followed. This is not what either the citizens of Atlanta or Dekalb county want or were promised for that site, and the decision to build there is bad policy all around.

  2. Margret, get the facts straight and stop the misinformation – the project is not going to be the largest in our country and it has not been a mature forest for many generations – it is scrub trees that grew in after years of farming.

  3. Good grief…this partially wooded area has in years past been farmed and logged…. what trees are there now sprung from previously worked over areas. An ariel view shows a huge swath carrying high tension power lines bisecting right through the area. Those men and women…black…brown…and white who serve as firefighting and law enforcement employees need a first-class area to train and hone their skills. This 85-acre facility will give them just that. That still leaves TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY-FIVE acres of adjacent “forest” to be maintained as such. Deron Davis, Executive Director of The Nature Conservatory, has stated that his organization is focused on those 265 acres that are to be preserved as “greenspace”. Mayor Dickens, as well former mayor Bottoms are boosters of this needed facility. Frankly, there seems to be a bit of an ‘anti-police’ stench emanating from this issue…witness the “NO COP CITY” graffiti spray painted by vandals at the site…. not to mention a flaming Molotov cocktail recently tossed towards law enforcement officers there.

    1. It calls to question that the cost of this facility is aprx. 91 million I have heard BUT our firefighters and police officers among others do not get paid at the same rate of other counties in the state. I want to know how there is this much money to build this facilities an yet the raises for the front line workers was less than promised ??? City of Atlanta can not keep officers they train because once trained they get hired by other counties at better pay and benefits.

      How will spending millions on this type of facility help ? When there is not enough money for the City of Atlanta to pay there forces a better rate to keep them employed in Atlanta ??? Why is this not being addressed ?????????????????????????????

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