Fulton, Atlanta going back and forth over jail overcrowding solution

The Atlanta City Detention Center and the Fulton County Jail. (AJC file photos)

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

The Atlanta City Detention Center and the Fulton County Jail. (AJC file photos)

Fulton County and the City of Atlanta have yet to settle on how many inmates could be held at the city’s jail to ease overcrowding at the county’s facility, according to officials and documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The negotiations between the city and county center on the number of beds temporarily offered for county detainees to help alleviate inhumane conditions at the Fulton County Jail on Rice Street.

While the 1,300-bed Atlanta City Detention Center is mostly empty, Fulton’s jail was over-capacity Thursday, with 246 inmates sleeping on makeshift beds on the floors of common areas.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has offered to use the city’s jail to house up to 150 Fulton County inmates as part of a re-entry program, according to a memo from late April. Those inmates must be within six months from the completion of their county jail sentence and would be given access to housing, jobs and other services.

But in a letter Monday to City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts asked for more than three times that many beds.

“Ultimately, the fate of the Atlanta City Detention Center lies in the hands of City Council and the Mayor. However, I write to you today to officially notify you ... that on behalf of the County I am requesting on the temporary use of 500 beds at the Atlanta City Detention Center,” Pitts wrote to Sheperd, who chairs the City Council’s public safety committee. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The talks could impact the future use of Atlanta’s mostly empty jail, which Bottoms has vowed to close and replace with a community center focused on equity. The City Council supports a temporary partnership to help Fulton, and voted to give Bottoms until the end of this month to ink an intergovernmental agreement with the county.

However, if the city and county fail to reach a consensus by the end of May, the City Council will create a joint committee focused on resolving Fulton jail’s overcrowding issues. That committee could consider whether the city should sell or lease the entire jail to Fulton County, a move favored by Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat.

County staff was trying to set up a meeting with council members, but Pitts was unsure on Thursday if a date had been reached for them to discuss the jail issue.

“We can’t lease a facility if the lessor doesn’t want to lease it to us. We can’t buy it unless the seller wants to sell it so us … we’re prepared to do either,” Pitts said.

Sheperd said she wants the Council to take on the issue because the negotiations between Pitts and Bottoms over the number of beds appear to be stalled.

“Since there seems to be a stalemate that this point where nobody’s moving, let us ... have a discussion about that,” Sheperd told the AJC on Thursday.

Atlanta City Jail sits mostly empty as people sleep on floor of Fulton County Jail. (File photo)

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A spokesman for Bottoms pointed to the city’s charter, which states that the mayor, not the Council, are responsible for intergovernmental relations.

“Any recommendations from Council will be just that — recommendations,” the spokesman said in a statement, though Sheperd pointed out that the Council would have to vote on any intergovernmental agreements put forward.

Pitts said the difference of 350 beds isn’t enough to break down negotiations. “In politics, the compromise is always the operative word of the day,” he said.

Pitts said he and Mayor Bottoms had a cordial conversation, where they agreed that 150 beds “would be a good starting point and see what happen.”

Bottoms’ office also said it could temporarily use its the city’s detention center to set up a 24/7 drop-off and community referral site for the city’s Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative, according to the memo. It also states the partnership with Fulton would be temporary, and the long-term use of the facility would be based on the city’s final decision on the detention center’s future.

Bottoms, who announced earlier this month that she is not running for a second term this year, says she remains committed to shepherding the closure of the Atlanta jail. A resolution that would set up the closure of the jail within 15 months in on hold in the City Council.

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