Fulton approves leasing beds at Atlanta’s detention center

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Fulton County commissioners Wednesday approved a lease with the city of Atlanta to lease up to 700 of the city’s detention center beds.

This move is the latest in the series of negotiations in an attempt to ease chronic overcrowding at the county jail, where for years inmates have been forced to sleep on the floor — and in what multitudes of officials have called inhuman conditions. All the while, the city detention facility has sat basically empty.

The 11-story city building is only a short-term fix for Fulton’s overwhelming jail population, but county staff say it’s still needed. Former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms sought to close the detention center and pushed back on Labat’s requests to lease beds there. But the new mayoral administration means new opportunity.

When he took over in January 2021, Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat said he needed additional space to treat inmates in a more humane way. Labat used to run the Atlanta City Detention Center.

“If you care about just people in general, you would want to do something to relieve this situation,” said Commissioner Natalie Hall.

Someone in the crowd responded from their seat, yelling: “Then let them go.”

In response to that argument, local organizer Devin Barrington-Ward after the vote told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “If you cared about people, you’d implement bail reform.”

There are currently 2,673 people charged with felonies sitting in the Fulton jail, said Labat’s chief of staff, Amelia Joiner. But those pushing against the jail and the lease say there needs to be more research into whether certain inmates are dangerous, or are being held on low-dollar bonds because they can’t pay.

Activists, some of whom waited seven hours to speak at Wednesday’s meeting, argue that more beds means more people behind bars as a result of an unjust justice system.

“The haste to move forward with this lease is going to waste lives, resources and money,” Barrington-Ward said during public comment. “ ... I’m going to be on the right side of history. Where are y’all going to be?”

After a long and contentious meeting Monday, the Atlanta City Council approved the city’s side of the lease — along with an amendment requiring an analysis of the county’s jail population showing the reason for detainees being held and the length of their stay. This “jail population review” was not part of the original deal.

Alton Adams, the county’s head of public safety, called the amendment “a bit of a surprise.” He added that he has the information that was asked for in that amendment.

“A lot of these issues are fundamental issues that create a flawed system, but the jail itself is not what causes that problem. The jail itself is part of a symptom of a bigger issue that we all need to work (on),” he said.

The lease is set to last four years at a price of $50 per inmate per day, with Atlanta also entitled to 65% of the phone and commissary fees.

Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman said she is worried about this deal being a “cash cow” for Atlanta on the back of Fulton taxpayers.

“What I’m against is a carte blanche for the city of Atlanta and for there to not be review or accountability to make sure this is very short-term,” she said.

Adams said part of the lease stipulates that any inmate at the detention center after the four years will cost Fulton taxpayers $150 per person per day.

“We have no incentive to prolong this. It’s not cheap,” Adams said.

Also not cheap would be the proposed new Fulton jail, which Labat estimates would cost upwards of $500 million. There’s currently a feasibility study on building the new facility. Adams said he planned to give a preliminary report on the study in September and present the final findings in December.

In response to the vote affirming the lease, a city spokesperson said: “The City and County will work together to implement the temporary lease agreement in accordance with the legislation passed by the Atlanta City Council and Fulton County Board of Commissioners.”