Council committee advances deal to lease 700 Atlanta jail beds to Fulton

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

An Atlanta City Council committee on Monday advanced a proposal to lease 700 beds at the Atlanta City Detention Center to Fulton County, despite calls from some officials to delay a vote and iron out a number of unanswered questions.

The lease agreement, which could last four years or longer, would allow Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat to move up to 700 detainees into the city’s mostly empty detention center. The county would pay $50 per day for each person housed at the city’s facility, with the city also entitled to 65% of the phone and commissary fees generated there.

The committee signed off on the lease by a 5-1 vote, with only Councilwoman Keisha Sean Waites against the proposal. The measure will now go before the full council for a vote Aug. 15. It is also subject to approval by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.

Waites pushed for the council to hold a work session on the issue to debate “many of the questions that have been asked, in addition to the thousands of emails and phone calls each of you have also received.” She also called for the creation of an oversight committee for the agreement.

Neither request was fruitful.

Labat, who did not attend or speak at the committee meeting, has been trying to access space at the city detention center since he took office last year, amid severe overcrowding at the county jail that causes hundreds of people to sleep on the floor each night. Conditions at the county jail have been the subject of lawsuits going back decades.

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

The sheriff told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that the four-year agreement would give the county time to build a new jail and relieve overcrowding. Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari said she had yet to see concrete evidence from the county about how it planned to do so, and asked why a deal made last year to house hundreds of Fulton inmates in Cobb County hasn’t solved the problem.

Michael Julian Bond, who sponsored the measure, said the city has a responsibility to work to improve the conditions of citizens held in poor conditions.

“We desperately need to act,” he said. “If we’re in a position to solve a problem ... at Fulton County we should immediately do that.”

Earlier in the meeting, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens made a rare appearance before the committee to speak in support of the deal, describing it as a “humanitarian response” to the situation at the county’s facility.

“We are not in the jailing business. I don’t want to be in the jailing business for long,” Dickens said. “Nonetheless, we find ourselves where we are today.”

He reiterated his desire to see the 11-story facility fully repurposed after the agreement was up. He said his administration plans to put out a request for information for contractors to provide potential solutions for turning the center into a facility that provides services for people facing homelessness or behavioral health issues.

While Dickens said he wants to use the revenue from the agreement to help fund homelessness and diversion services, he did not address the recent statement from the Policing Alternatives and Diversion initiative saying that “funding any of these activities with revenues generated from incarcerating the same people we seek to assist is incompatible with our mission as well as our values.”

ExploreAtlanta-Fulton jail deal prompts questions, pushback from diversion program

Local activists have pushed for years for the closure of the city’s detention center, which holds fewer than 50 detainees a night. Most are held on minor, nonviolent offenses.

Before Monday’s meeting, the Southern Center for Human Rights held a press conference denouncing the deal. Advocates said the agreement favors the county’s interests and opens the door for the sheriff to house county detainees at the detention center beyond four years. The lease states that if the county keeps detainees at the city facility longer than four years, the charge to the county would triple to $150 per person per day, which Dickens said was a severe penalty aimed at holding Fulton accountable.

The Southern Center suggested a number of administrative steps the county can take to reduce the number of people incarcerated at its jail. Tiffany Roberts, the organization’s public policy director, said the mayor’s promise to repurpose the jail after four years is “not rock solid,” since his term will end by 2026, and he’s not guaranteed a second term.

“Fulton County has done this for decades,” Roberts said. “They fill the jail, they outsource incarcerated people, a judge stops breathing down their neck, and then they fill the jail up again. So why would the mayor choose to try something that we have seen be ineffective?”

— Staff reporter Ben Brasch contributed to this report.