Fulton commission dubious on transferring inmates far away

Moving inmates to Mississippi and southeast Georgia would cost $40 million a year
Fulton County jail

Credit: John Spink / Jspink@ajc.com

Credit: John Spink / Jspink@ajc.com

Fulton County jail

Fulton County officials are unanimous in declaring the overcrowded, deteriorating jail at 901 Rice St. to be in crisis. But that’s where the agreement ends.

Commissioners pushed back Wednesday as Sheriff Patrick Labat sought to sell them on a plan to move hundreds of inmates to private prisons in Mississippi and southeast Georgia. They also disputed with county staff as to whether significant progress is being made in reducing the backlog of court cases contributing to jail overcrowding.

Commissioner Bob Ellis decried the lack of progress on reducing the percentage of jail inmates who are still awaiting indictment. He said despite positive reports from county staff on reducing a huge backlog of court cases — and moving inmates to other local holding facilities — many measures of jail overcrowding have shown no improvement in months.

Ellis noted that more than 500 Fulton inmates have been waiting for court hearings for more than 90 days, and 60 of those have been in limbo for more than a year.

“If that’s not disturbing, I don’t know what is,” he said.

Commissioners Khadijah Abdur-Rahman and Natalie Hall stated their opposition to Labat’s plan. Commissioners Marvin Arrington Jr. and Dana Barrett echoed Chairman Robb Pitts’ suggestion to seek use of all 1,300 beds in the Atlanta City Detention Center. The county has contracted to use 700 of those beds but only about 400 are occupied, due in part to inadequate staffing and in part to restrictions on what kind of inmates can be sent there.

Ellis demanded more details, further in advance, provoking an angry response from Labat. Pitts tried to referee, and as the audience grew noisy he threatened to clear the commission chamber.

The proposed sites are 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 Tallahatchie facility can hold more than 2,500 inmates while Folkston has just over 2,000 beds.

Sheriff’s office documents sent to commissioners say Labat wants to move 800 to 1,000 inmates. Amelia Joiner, general counsel for the sheriff’s office, said the Folkston facility could be ready to take 500 Fulton inmates in 30 days, and 1,000 within 60 days.

Placing inmates in Tallahatchie and Folkston won’t be cheap, Joiner said.

“It would be roughly $40 million per year,” she said. The proposed agreement is for two years, with renewal options allowing for a total of five years, Joiner said.

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

A procession of public defenders spoke out during the commission’s public comment period to denounce Labat’s plan.

The Atlanta Circuit Public Defender on Sept. 12 sought an emergency writ of mandamus to halt any long-distance inmate transfers. On Monday this was followed by a similar suit by the Georgia Public Defenders Council. Public defenders represent about 80% of Fulton inmates.

Both petitions in Fulton County Superior Court agree the jail is unsafe and unsanitary, but demand that Labat only move prisoners to nearby counties.

Representatives of both groups addressed commissioners in person Wednesday, with Public Defender Maurice Kenner declaring his opposition to any attempt by Labat to move “presumptively innocent clients, mostly of color” hundreds of miles from Fulton County.

State law says the sheriff’s duty is to move overcrowded inmates to the nearest county with available space, Kenner said.

Marilyn Primovic, senior trial attorney for the public defender, said moving inmates so far away would make it impossible for lawyers to build a working relationship with clients and assemble an effective defense, a process that takes months. Other speakers from the public defender’s office said long-distance moves would worsen inmates’ mental health, deprive them of local court-appointed resources, and turn short routine visits into day-long trips.

Answering Commissioner Bridget Thorne, Joiner said state law actually says the sheriff “may” move inmates to other counties but doesn’t specify how far — or even that they have to remain in Georgia.

Labat agreed that Atlanta’s restrictions on the number and type of inmates that can be sent to the city facility should be changed, and said he’s releasing all the minor offenders he can, but that he still needs to send hundreds elsewhere in order to make repairs to the existing jail.

“I got it, no one wants to go to Mississippi. I don’t even want to go to Mississippi. But I went,” Labat said. The facilities in Tallahatchie and Folkston have programs available to help “change lives,” programs that aren’t available in the Fulton jail, he said.

Labat brought with him inmate Kenneth Perry Jr., who has been held in the Rice Street jail for more than 15 months on four charges. He said Perry wanted to tell commissioners firsthand about jail conditions.

“The walls are crumbling down,” Perry said. Inmates make knives from pieces of the building to defend themselves from similarly-armed inmates, he said.

Perry said he has had four knives pulled on him at once, and that his mother had to wire money to jail accounts to prevent him from being killed.

Joiner said Labat has already reached out to every sheriff in Georgia seeking bed space in their jails.

“They had none,” she said. Many have the physical room, but like Fulton County, are so short on staff they can’t supervise more inmates than they already have, Joiner said.

Ten inmates have died in county custody this year, and the death last September of Lashawn Thompson led to a $4 million settlement with his family and an ongoing federal investigation.

The Southern Commission on Human Rights and Color of Change sent a letter Monday to Pitts opposing inmate transfers and asking why health-monitoring electronic wristbands, for which commissioners approved $2.1 million several months ago, have not prevented the rash of recent inmate deaths.