Atlanta City Council revisits controversial plan for closure of detention center

June 7, 2019 Fulton County- Atlanta City Detention Center on Friday, June 7, 2019 on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. The detention center was built in 1995 and last renovated in 1999. Christina Matacotta/christina.matacotta@ajc.com

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June 7, 2019 Fulton County- Atlanta City Detention Center on Friday, June 7, 2019 on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. The detention center was built in 1995 and last renovated in 1999. Christina Matacotta/christina.matacotta@ajc.com

There’s a new proposal to transform the Atlanta City Detention Center into a community resource center.

On Tuesday, the Atlanta City Council introduced a resolution to close the detention center and repurpose it into a health and wellness center, named after the late John Lewis.

The new center would provide mental health support, drug and alcohol treatment, space for nonprofit service providers, and transitional housing for the homeless, according to the resolution.

Under the proposal, the city would conduct a feasibility study and the transformation would happen within 180 days. The Atlanta Police Department would be urged to refer eligible cases to the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative. Police would also be urged to use Grady Hospital beds for arrests involving mental health, drugs, and alcohol intoxication.

Existing jail staff would be offered the opportunity to transfer to APD or the Fire Department, while others could stay at the new diversion center, according to the resolution.

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The measure is technically non-binding if it passes the council because it’s not an ordinance, so it would be up to Mayor Andre Dickens to implement it. And last year, then City Councilman-Dickens said he wanted to keep the jail open if elected, at least in the short-term.

A city spokesman said Dickens was unavailable for comment.

Before the proposal reaches the mayor, it could face an uphill battle getting through the council.

Council members last year rejected a plan proposed by former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to close the detention center because they wanted to help address overcrowding at Fulton County’s jail.

In 2020, a task force report recommended replacing the detention center with a center focused on equity.

The City Council this week approved a $16 million budget for the Atlanta Department of Corrections, which manages the detention center, but some officials and activists questioned that level of funding. Only two or three floors of the 11-story building downtown are used to hold fewer than 50 detainees a night.

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Council member Keisha Sean Waites during discussion as the Atlanta City Council held their first in person meeting since they were suspended at start of the pandemic In Atlanta on Monday, March 21, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Council member Keisha Sean Waites during discussion as the Atlanta City Council held their first in person meeting since they were suspended at start of the pandemic In Atlanta on Monday, March 21, 2022.   (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

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Council member Keisha Sean Waites during discussion as the Atlanta City Council held their first in person meeting since they were suspended at start of the pandemic In Atlanta on Monday, March 21, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

”We have a revolving door with individuals being incarcerated and arrested for petty crimes,” said Councilmember Keisha Sean Waites, the resolution’s cosponsor.

All three sponsors of the measure are new to council this year. Waites said she wants this latest measure to be vetted by the council’s public safety committee, and is in no rush to pass it.

“We believe the time is right, right now,” Waites said. “It’s not closing, but the work is repurposing the jail to provide the resources for individuals who are there who wish and seek to get help.”

Councilman Antonio Lewis, another cosponsor, emphasized the detention center holds people accused of minor, nonviolent crimes, and many of them need support for mental health or substance abuse.

“These aren’t the people breaking into our cars all day, everyday. These aren’t the people that are shooting us.” Lewis said. “The public has been coming down (to City Hall) about this issue more than anything else.”

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Council member Antonio Lewis during discussion as the Atlanta City Council held their first in person meeting since they were suspended at start of the pandemic In Atlanta on Monday, March 21, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Council member Antonio Lewis during discussion as the Atlanta City Council held their first in person meeting since they were suspended at start of the pandemic In Atlanta on Monday, March 21, 2022.   (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

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Council member Antonio Lewis during discussion as the Atlanta City Council held their first in person meeting since they were suspended at start of the pandemic In Atlanta on Monday, March 21, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Councilmember and cosponsor Liliana Bakhtiari acknowledged their measure may face a tough road ahead, but feels it’s an important effort to undertake.

“This is to push the conversation forward instead of waiting,” Bakhtiari said.

During the city’s budget hearings, dozens of residents, health care providers, legal professionals, and activists filled the council chambers to advocate for the detention center’s closure.

“The momentum is on our side,” said Devin Barrington-Ward, a former council candidate and task force participant. He said they encouraged the new lawmakers to draft this measure long before their swearing in ceremony in January.

“Having our legislation introduced under this new administration and a new council is indicative of the power of the people,” he said.

Robyn Hasan, executive director at Women on the Rise, said the measure itself shows the council is actually listening to residents, even if she is still concerned about the resolution’s fate in the council.

But Rachelle O’Neil, who worked for Lewis for 19 years, said she has spoken with the late congressman’s family, including his brother and son, who support the detention center’s repurposing and renaming.

”When people visit the center, it will embody his spirit,” she said.