In an interview this week, Labat detailed his plans to change the Sheriff’s Office. He said he intends to fill 150 vacant positions, send deputies out on patrols to assist police around the county, and address nagging jail issues.
Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson at a 2012 news conference on the arrest of jail employees accused of smuggling contraband. FILE PHOTO
Those goals may be lofty, especially at a time when COVID-19 has pinched budgets and made the work of running jails even more complicated than normal. Since the pandemic started, the country and the county also have seen historic protests calling for law enforcement reforms. In June, protesters successfully opposed a $23 million proposal to build isolation units at Fulton jails to combat a potential COVID-19 outbreak.
Labat said he isn’t daunted by the challenges.
“The one thing I hate for people to tell me is what I can’t do,” he said.
$1 billion and counting
In the past few decades, the biggest challenge for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office has been running — and perpetually trying to fix — the county jail.
An inmate complaint in 2004 set in motion 11 years of federal oversight at the jail on Rice Street. Inmates were sleeping on the floor because of overcrowding, raw sewage was flooding cells, and inmates were able to wander because of faulty locks. The county has spent $1 billion to fix up the 2,500-bed jail, but overcrowding persisted even after the feds gave the county full control of the facility back in 2015.
Since 2011, the county has maintained a 200-bed lockup for women in Union City. In a 2019 lawsuit, the Southern Center for Human Rights said mentally ill inmates were held in unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail. A judge called the issues repulsive and ordered Jackson to fix them. The lawsuit is still pending as attorneys for the inmates and for the Sheriff’s Office attempt to reach an agreement.
A woman lies on a thin mattress in her cell with water pooled at the foot of her metal bed, as seen during a midday visit at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail. This image is included in a federal lawsuit filed on April 10, 2019, by the Georgia Advocacy Office and two women being held at the jail. The lawsuit includes graphic photos from a recent visit to the jail — among them this one — and details unimaginable conditions for the women detainees.
Looking back, Jackson, who became sheriff after retiring from the FBI, said he’d done his best with difficult circumstances. He said his administration had improved mental health treatment by bringing in Emory University employees. He said his program to help departing inmates stay out of trouble had achieved a 95% success rate.
“I think we exceeded everything I expected,” Jackson said. He plans to retire for good after leaving office.
Jackson said overcrowding at the Rice Street jail was ultimately out of his control. Judges, not the sheriff, hold the power to release inmates, he noted.
Labat said his staff will review the jail roster daily and look for inmates the Sheriff’s Office could assist in being released. While judges decide which inmates are held, the sheriff can use the influence that comes with the position to advocate for the release of inmates who pose no danger to the public.
“Keeping people out of jail has to (drive) our thought process,” Labat said.
Speaking at a Fulton County Commission meeting this week, resident Sherry Michael said she wanted to put Labat on notice that voters won’t stand for poor conditions at the jails.
“If he doesn’t do the right thing, he will be voted out also,” said Michael. “What citizens want is humanity shown in Fulton County jails.”
‘A growing process’
Fulton’s chief jailer has said efforts to depopulate the Atlanta city jail, which Labat ran until retiring at the end of 2019, made overcrowding worse at the county jail. The city jail, a 1,300-bed facility on Peachtree Street, saw a drastic reduction in inmates over the past few years because of criminal justice reforms instituted by city leaders. In 2017, the Atlanta City Council voted to make possession of small amounts of marijuana punishable by a ticket instead of arrest. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who took office in 2018, ordered the elimination of cash bail and for the jail to stop housing immigration detainees.
Prior to the reforms, the city jail had faced allegations of poor treatment of inmates. In a 2018 report, Project South and Georgia Detention Watch lambasted the jail, calling for it to be shutdown. The report, drawing on interviews with dozens of detainees held for immigration officials, said people in the facility were denied “adequate access to legal services and information, refused their fundamental due process rights, and limited from phone access by both high costs and administrative policy.”
Labat called the report an inaccurate portrayal of life at a facility where he constantly told staff their job was to provide the best possible conditions. Though he didn’t agree the jail had problems, Labat worked with a mayor-appointed task force to determine how it could change after the number of people held declined.
Demonstrators camped outside the Atlanta Detention Center, which houses hundreds of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency detainees, in a protest against a U.S. immigration policy that separated children from their parents.
Credit: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM
Credit: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM
In June, the task force recommended demolishing the facility and replacing it with a “center for equity” to serve residents who might otherwise be affected by the criminal justice system.
Task force member Xochitl Bereva, director of Racial Justice Action Center, said Labat’s engagement in efforts to re-imagine the Atlanta jail makes her “cautiously optimistic” about his chances of improving Fulton’s jail operations.
“My sense is this was a growing process for him,” Bereva said this week.
Deputies on the street
In promising to send deputies out on patrols, Labat said he’s hoping to make the Sheriff’s Office a leader in law enforcement in the county. Like other counties in metro Atlanta, Fulton long ago began relying on police departments for day-to-day crime fighting. The Sheriff’s Office is instead tasked only with operating detention facilities, overseeing courthouse security and arresting fugitives.
Labat said police officials around the county have told him they could use more help from deputies. He pledges to put as many as 200 deputies on the streets to assist local police and, when necessary, do the policing themselves.
“Where we can partner, we need to partner,” Labat said. “But understanding the role of the sheriff, I don’t have to partner with anybody. We just need to provide the resources. We will be very intent on law and order.”
City of South Fulton Police Chief Keith Meadows said deputies can assist local police, especially when it comes to crime that spills over from one city to the next. Unlike city police, deputies have jurisdiction to enforce the law anywhere in the county.
An inmate is seen during a tour of the Fulton County Jail on December 9, 2019, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Credit: Elijah Nouvelage
Credit: Elijah Nouvelage
“The same criminals breaking in cars in Sandy Springs (are) in South Fulton,” Meadows said. “I think it’d be a great opportunity for us to partner with the Sheriff’s Office.”
Labat hasn’t given a timeline for how soon he’d start sending deputies to the streets. He acknowledged that some of his goals will have to be accomplished “post-COVID,” but he said he intends to see them through as soon as possible.
“Admittedly, it will take some time to get there,” he said, “but I don’t think the transformation will be as slow as people believe.”