Details coming Wednesday on transferring Fulton inmates to far-away facilities

Credit: Fulton County Commission

Credit: Fulton County Commission

What options are Sheriff Patrick Labat considering to move inmates out of the overcrowded Fulton County Jail, and how would he pay for it?

That’s what county commissioners are scheduled to hear during their Wednesday meeting — though not from Labat himself, but from Alton Adams, county chief operating officer for Justice, Public Safety & Technology.

The sheriff is floating ideas to reduce overcrowding in county lockups by moving hundreds of inmates to private prisons: the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, operated by CoreCivic; and the D. Ray James Correctional Institution in Folkston, run by GEO Group.

The cost of sending inmates to those facilities, and the schedule for doing so, are still in negotiation, according to Natalie Ammons, director of communications for the sheriff’s office.

Adams is slated to discuss “inmate outsourcing options.” Attached to the agenda item is a 12-page marketing brochure for the D. Ray James facility. It starts by announcing itself as a “turn-key solution for agencies looking to reduce facility overcrowding issues,” but does not mention cost.

The Folkston facility is a campus of nearly half a million square feet with just over 2,000 beds divided between four buildings; support buildings; “ample indoor and outdoor recreation,” according to the brochure. Since 2010, when GEO Group bought it from the state, it has been used for federal immigration detainees, but that use is being phased out.

The Tallahatchie jail can hold more than 2,500 inmates.

Moving Fulton inmates to Folkston would put them nearly 300 miles away, while Tallahatchie is about 400 miles.

The public defender for the Atlanta Judicial Circuit petitioned Sept. 12 in Fulton Superior Court to prevent inmates from being shipped that far away, arguing that doing so would severely damage attorneys’ efforts to represent them effectively. The public defender’s office routinely represents about 80% of those in pre-trial detention in Fulton County, the filing says.

The public defender’s office declined to comment further on Monday, due to its ongoing litigation; but has not ruled out seeking legal remedies beyond its petition.

The sheriff’s office defended the proposal Monday.

“Outsourcing inmates is the best and safest avenue for safely housing detainees until the case backlog is addressed and overcrowding is relieved,” Ammons said.

Jail crowding was exacerbated by the shutdown of courts during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a backlog of 150,000 cases. That has been cut by two-thirds, due to the application of $74 million in federal COVID relief funds to hire more personnel and hold more hearings, but it’s expected to take another year to clear the backlog completely.

Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts has said on his official blog that county officials, including the sheriff, agree the immediate solution to jail overcrowding is to transfer up to 1,000 inmates to other facilities.

Pitts said he supports exploring moves to Tallahatchie and Folkston but prefers expanding the county’s lease of 700 beds in the former Atlanta City Detention Center and perhaps transferring inmates to the low-security U.S. Penitentiary on McDonough Boulevard. He wants to loosen the criteria for inmates to be sent to detention center and expand the county’s lease to use all of the facility’s 1,300 beds.

The county now has 446 inmates in the city facility, but that’s all that can be handled with current staff, Ammons said. As of July 28 the sheriff’s office was short 103 sworn deputies, with 52 more expected to hire on by the end of September, according to sheriff’s office statistics. Keeping staff at county-run lockups is a chronic problem.

According to those statistics, Fulton’s total jail population Sunday evening was 3,434. That’s 40 fewer than five days earlier, but still 1,180 above target capacity.

That included 2,420 in the 901 Rice Street jail, or 166 above operational capacity. There were 163 in the Union City jail annex, 405 in nearby cities and counties, and 446 in the Atlanta detention center.

It describes the detention center as having a contract capacity of 700, but an “operational capacity” of 456.

The main Fulton jail is not only overcrowded but has seen an unprecedented wave of inmate deaths. Ten inmates have died in custody this year, either in the jail or in the hospital. Six deaths have occurred in the past seven weeks.

Between 2009 and October 2022, more than 60 Fulton inmates died, the highest total for any jail in Georgia during that time, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

The Sept. 13, 2022, death of Lashawn Thompson sparked an ongoing federal investigation of jail conditions, and Fulton County recently settled with Thompson’s family for $4 million. His cause of death was officially undetermined, but he was found covered in insects and bug bites.

The county is planning a new, much larger jail, but it’s expected to cost $1.7 billion and wouldn’t open until 2029. Labat has requested millions to keep the old Rice Street jail running until then. County staff have earmarked several million for that “bridging plan” this year but county commissioners’ decision to keep the property tax rate steady means less than projected will be available for jail funding in the future.

Recently Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis weighed in, saying, “the reality is we need a bigger facility and it needs to be a facility that treats people humanely.”