Dyana Bagby | Reporter Newspapers | October 16, 2022

The Fulton County Jail on Rice Street. (Dyana Bagby)
The Fulton County Jail on Rice Street. (Dyana Bagby)

The Atlanta City Council could vote Monday, Oct. 17, to move inmates from Fulton County’s overcrowded jail to the city’s detention center sooner than expected.

In August, the City Council, in a split vote, approved a contract to lease Fulton County up to 700 beds of the mostly empty Atlanta City Detention Center to alleviate overcrowding at the county jail.

The agreement requires the Justice Policy Board complete an in-depth analysis of those locked up at the county jail before the lease agreement goes into effect within 90 days. The review will look at why inmates are booked, the time inmates spend at the jail, how their cases are resolved and more. The study could by finished by mid-November.

The Fulton County Board of Commissioners signed off on the City Council’s lease agreement requiring the report, although Fulton Board of Commissioners Chair Rob Pitts voted against it.

Councilmember Michael Julian Bond introduced the legislation to eliminate the portion of the lease contract that requires a comprehensive report. The issue was hotly debated during the council’s Oct. 10 public safety committee meeting.

“I understand that people say … we want to try to define who comes into the jail, who knows what type of inmates are all over there,” Bond said at the meeting. “But frankly, you know, that’s not our purview. That falls within the constitutional authority of the Sheriff of Fulton County.”

“It’s dangerous,” Bond said. “What do we say to the people whose families have lost loved ones because we’re asking for a spreadsheet with some information.”

Councilmember Keisha Waites snapped at some of Bond’s comments. She said the city of Atlanta and Fulton County agreed in August to require a statistical jail population review study within 90 days to “provide insight as to how to most efficiently and safely resolve the urgent humanitarian crisis of overcrowding at the jail.”

“So to use the word ‘spreadsheet,’ I find offensive,” she said. “I just want the residents of the city of Atlanta to know that this is not a spreadsheet that we’re asking for, nor are we indifferent. We want to set good policy and make the best decisions for the individuals who are housed over in that facility.”

Councilmember Mary Norwood said the “city is playing with fire” by not moving inmates from the crowded Fulton facilities to ACDC.

“I served on the city’s Repeat Offender Commission and during that time …. I understood directly from judges that they were making decisions for releasing people and not holding them in jail because of overcrowding. End of story,” she said.

Councilmember Jason Dozier introduced the amendment in August to require the jail population review because he said he did not get information he had requested in the weeks before the vote. He is not on the public safety committee, but attended the meeting to urge keeping the report requirement in the lease agreement.

Georgia already removes registrations of ineligible and lapsed voters, though it can take as long as nine years when they don’t respond to repeated notification letters from election officials. Voters who are convicted of felonies or die are removed more quickly. It’s illegal to vote in two different states.

“Let’s not shy away from transparency,” Dozier said.

“How can we do our jobs if we don’t know root causes of mass incarceration so that we can disrupt systemic issues and especially systemic racism?” Bakhtiari said. “The lease has happened. It’s going to happen, we know this. All that we are asking is for the data to understand who is being locked up.”

Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari also addressed the public safety committee and said the jail population report was needed before any inmate transfers begin.

In recent days, Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat has called the report requirement a “stall tactic” and that his department has already provided the information requested. He said the overcrowding at the Rice Street jail is a “crisis” and waiting to transfer inmates puts them as well as the corrections staff in danger.

Pitts issued a press release last week telling the city, “Give us the damn keys to the jail” because “we cannot wait a minute longer.” Labat and Pitts have also said transferring inmates and completing the comprehensive report can be done simultaneously.

A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia says overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail is a result of unaffordable bail; delayed indictments; and underutilization of diversion programs and services.