Atlanta residents demand closure of detention center at budget hearing

The city of Atlanta. Some activists want to transform the near-empty city jail into an "Equity Center." Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Combined ShapeCaption
The city of Atlanta. Some activists want to transform the near-empty city jail into an "Equity Center." Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Dozens of residents, health care providers, legal professionals, and activists filled the Atlanta City Council chambers for two hours Tuesday to advocate for the closure of Atlanta’s detention center.

The Atlanta City Detention Center holds people accused of violating city ordinances that are mostly nonviolent crimes. Although bookings have slowly increased since the start of the pandemic, only two or three floors of the 11-story building downtown are typically used, and hold an average of fewer than 50 detainees.

Regardless, Atlanta’s Department of Corrections, which runs the jail, is seeking a $16 million budget for Fiscal Year 2023, which begins July 1.

At Tuesday’s public hearing, resident Katie Murphy called that budget outrageous while Madeleine Henner called it silly. Kyle McGrath said it’s a waste of taxpayer money. Austin Hunter said they could use those funds for “a million other things.”

“We have a budget that doesn’t reflect the values of the people and it’s killing us,” said former council candidate Devin Barrington-Ward.

Many of the speakers said jailing nonviolent offenders often forces them to relapse into criminal behavior. Some speakers accused the city of keeping the jail open just to punish protestors and the homeless.

All of them, collectively, spent more than an hour urging Atlanta to “zero out the budget for the jail,” and to invest more resources into affordable housing, transportation and health care services. One attendee wearing a white coat carried a sign that said “CARE not CUFFS.”

“I do not often get to say this but ACDC does not rock,” quipped Emily Backus, using the acronym for the Atlanta City Detention Center that is also the name of a hard rock band. “As a teacher of children, I’m imploring you to set an example for them of the good you can do in this city.”

Combined ShapeCaption
In 2018, a protest against a federal policy that separated children from their parents was held outside the Atlanta Detention Center, which housed hundreds of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency detainees. That year, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order barring the city jail from holding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detainees.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

In 2018, a protest against a federal policy that separated children from their parents was held outside the Atlanta Detention Center, which housed hundreds of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency detainees. That year, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order barring the city jail from holding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detainees.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Combined ShapeCaption
In 2018, a protest against a federal policy that separated children from their parents was held outside the Atlanta Detention Center, which housed hundreds of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency detainees. That year, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order barring the city jail from holding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detainees.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

The jail and its budget have been scrutinized ever since former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she wanted to close it to create a support center for the homeless and people with mental health issues. Last year’s city council rejected that proposal, and instead OK’d plans to keep the jail open and to build a Center for Diversion and Services within the building.

Some of Atlanta’s new, more progressive council members assured residents that their concerns would be addressed.

Councilwoman Keisha Sean Waites said she is reviewing draft legislation that could transform the detention center into a more beneficial space for the city. Councilman Antonio Lewis told residents to vote out any council members who fail to make life better for the residents.

Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari expressed solidarity with most of the speakers, and also urged residents to lobby Mayor Andre Dickens for closure.

“The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results,” Bakhtiari said. “In many ways we are manufacturing a human crisis. Probably said more than I should have, but that’s how I feel.”