Fulton commission takes back money for jail health monitoring wristbands

Sheriff Patrick Labat speaks against Fulton County's clawback of $2.1 million for health-monitoring wristbands in the county jail.

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

Sheriff Patrick Labat speaks against Fulton County's clawback of $2.1 million for health-monitoring wristbands in the county jail.

Fulton County commissioners rescinded $2.1 million in funding for the sheriff’s office for health-monitoring wristbands at the chronically-troubled Rice Street jail.

Technology startup Talitrix was to provide 1,000 wristbands and associated monitoring infrastructure after the money was allocated in April. Commissioner Bob Ellis questioned the deal. But in an unusual move, Chair Robb Pitts called to take back the funding.

Only 15 of the wristbands are in use at the main Rice Street jail, according to the sheriff’s office.

“This is probably one of the worst contracts in my many years of public service that I’ve had anything to do with,” Pitts said.

Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of rescinding the allocation. Only commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. voted against the measure.

Sheriff Patrick Labat said he hopes “no one else dies” in the jail due to lack of monitoring. At least 10 people have died in the jail during the last year. After the commission vote he spoke to media, denouncing the vote as “a political witch hunt.”

Losing the funding will require the sheriff’s office to reassess implementation of the Talitrix wristbands, he said. Labat floated ideas of seeking more state or federal money, or even donations to replace the county funds.

Some commissioners have allowed the jail to be underfunded for decades, he said. The Fulton jail is not only underfunded but overcrowded and understaffed, the same problems that face jails across the state and the country, Labat said.

In April, commissioners approved an emergency funding request from Labat that included $2.1 million for the wristbands, which monitor the vital signs and locations of inmates in the jail. Early this month Ellis began questioning the sheriff’s deal with Alpharetta-based Talitrix, upon learning the sheriff’s office had similar deals with the company dating back to September 2021.

He sent Labat a list of questions and requested his appearance at Wednesday’s commission meeting. Ellis said he’d gotten no answers to his questions in more than a week.

Speaking for Labat, sheriff’s office General Counsel Amelia Joiner said commissioners don’t have the power to order the sheriff to do anything, but said that Labat believes in transparency. She began to read a statement when Ellis cut her off, saying he wanted answers to specific questions. Pitts joined Ellis’ push.

Labat apologized to the commissioners for any impression that the wristbands could be “slapped on like an Apple Watch.” In April, he also asked for other funding to keep the jail in working order, some of which commissioners rejected, he said.

Joiner said Talitrix was paid $35,000 for designing its monitoring system in December 2021, followed by two instalments of $195,000 each to build monitoring infrastructure. The original contract was valued at $1.6 million but only $435,000 of that was paid from the jail’s inmate welfare fund, she said.

Following the April appropriation, Talitrix was paid $733,000 from the county’s general fund for work at the main jail. The sheriff’s office has another deal with Talitrix for electronic monitoring “which is a completely separate issue,” Joiner said.

Ellis asked for all spending from the inmate welfare fund, but Joiner said that’s “under review and audit.”

“This is yet another straightforward request for which we are getting a non-responsive answer,” Ellis said.

Joiner said the information would be turned over in two weeks.

Ellis asked why the previous agreements with Talitrix weren’t disclosed in April when the sheriff sought extra funding. That was commissioners’ fault for not asking, Joiner said.

Joiner said the sheriff’s office made a “monitoring service agreement” with Talitrix in September 2021. Every inmate in the south annex jail in Union City wore a monitoring armband for several months, but those inmates moved in September 2022 to Atlanta City Detention Center. The latter facility didn’t have the infrastructure to track the wristbands, so a second agreement put the monitoring wristbands on about 50 county inmates held in the Alpharetta jail, she said.

“That technology has been up and running for months now,” Joiner said.

Ellis said the April presentation indicated the monitoring system would be operating at the Rice Street jail “by July.” Commissioners wouldn’t have approved $2.1 million as emergency funding if they knew that wouldn’t happen, but the sheriff’s office should have known from previous experience with Talitrix that implementation would be slow, he said.

Joiner disputed that assertion, but acknowledged the first wristbands weren’t put into use at Rice Street until Sept. 11. Fifteen came online then, and that’s still the number — enough to equip one of the jail’s 78 housing units.

Joiner said Talitrix recently said it should take three to six weeks to complete implementation, but that’s hampered by continued deterioration of the jail itself.

The deal is for “up to” 1,000 wristbands, with the expectation that 500 would actually be in use, with the rest being spares, recharging or under repair, she said.