In contentious meeting, Atlanta City Council OKs leasing jail beds to Fulton

Amendment to the agreement requires `jail population review’

Following a contentious debate and hours of impassioned remarks from residents and activists, the Atlanta City Council on Monday signed off on an agreement to lease 700 city detention center beds to Fulton County, which continues to face severe jail overcrowding.

But under an amendment that narrowly passed, that lease won’t begin until officials conduct an in-depth analysis of Fulton County’s jail population, why detainees are being held and how long they’ve been behind bars.

The council passed the agreement on a 10-4 vote after making a host of changes to the agreement — including instituting a “jail population review” for the city and Fulton County. Other cities have undertaken similar studies to reduce jail overcrowding, according to the legislation.

The agreement, originally negotiated by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, now goes to the Fulton County Board of Commissioners for a vote scheduled for Wednesday.

ExploreFulton commissioners to consider lease with Atlanta on jail space

The council’s vote marked a substantial development in the years-long debate over the future of the Atlanta City Detention Center, the 11-story building that sits mostly empty on Peachtree Street and houses fewer than 50 detainees a night. Former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms sought to close the jail and pushed back on Labat’s requests to lease beds to the county.

Under the agreement, Fulton County would be able to move up to 700 detainees from its Union City and Rice Street facilities into the city 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.

Councilmembers heard hours of public comment from frustrated residents and activists who urged the council to follow through on Bottoms’ plan to repurpose the jail into a center focused on providing resources and services to people who need care. Meanwhile, officials scrambled to take meetings, negotiate amendments and whip votes.

The amendment related to the jail population review, set to be conducted by the joint city-county Justice Policy Board, passed via a rare tie vote, with Council President Doug Shipman breaking the tie in favor of the measure as cheers filled the City Council chambers.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Local criminal justice reform activists applauded the inclusion of the jail population review, but denounced the final passage of the lease.

“We are ashamed that the city voted this legislation up. This was bad legislation from the start,” local organizer Devin Barrington-Ward said after the vote, adding that “the community is what reduced the harm here. ... They were about to approve a lease with no data.”

Supporters of the lease pointed to poor conditions at Fulton County’s facilities as reasons the city should offer space.

“This lease doesn’t put new people in jail. It takes people who are already incarcerated and moves to them to an improved facility,” said Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who sponsored the measure. “We’re trying to relieve pressure.”

The meeting got tense at times. Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari temporarily walked out of the council chambers after Councilman Jason Winston moved to reconsider the vote related to the jail population review study.

“Suddenly you want to reconsider? I am absolutely ashamed,” Bakhtiari said. Winston’s motion ultimately failed on a 7-7 vote, broken again by Shipman.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Dickens said last week that he supports eventually repurposing the jail after the agreement with the county ends, and plans to put out a “request for information” for alternative uses of the public. He has called the overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail a humanitarian crisis that requires the city to act by offering more space.

The end date of the lease agreement isn’t set in stone, though the daily fees to the county would triple if detainees remain at the city detention center past four years. Labat has said he hopes four years is enough time to build a new jail and address overcrowding.

But activists say there are alternate steps, including bail reform and diversion services, that the county can take to reduce its jail population.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Among the critics of the proposal: The Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative, which receives millions in funding from the city every year to offer services to people experiencing behavioral or substance abuse issues who might otherwise be arrested for minor, non-violent offenses.

“Expanding the jail is a knee jerk response, and I believe we have come too far for that,” said Moki Macias, PAD’s executive director. She said data shows over 300 people arrested over the past six months could have been diverted and provided services, but were nevertheless taken to Fulton County Jail.

Over 100 people gathered outside City Hall before the meeting for a rally opposing the lease agreement.

“I myself was inside Fulton County Jail. ... Everybody seems like they have the answer for us,” said Robyn Hasan, the executive director of Women on the Rise, a grassroots organization led by formerly incarcerated women. “This is so not it. There is no healing inside of any cage.”