Judge: Fulton County sheriff can’t send inmates out of state

An aerial photograph of the private prison in Folkston where Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat has suggested sending some inmates from the county's overcrowded jail.

Credit: Fulton County Commission

Combined ShapeCaption
An aerial photograph of the private prison in Folkston where Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat has suggested sending some inmates from the county's overcrowded jail.

Credit: Fulton County Commission

Credit: Fulton County Commission

Sheriff Patrick Labat can’t ship Fulton County inmates outside of Georgia to relieve jail overcrowding, a judge has ruled.

Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee rejected a petition from Atlanta Judicial Circuit Public Defender Maurice Kenner to prohibit Labat from sending hundreds of inmates to private prisons in south Georgia and Mississippi. But in doing so, McAfee also said Georgia law already bars Labat from exporting prisoners to another state.

All parties agree the main Rice Street jail is unsafe, McAfee wrote, but state laws must be read in the “most natural and reasonable way” — and that means the statute only authorizes transfers due to unsafe conditions to the “nearest county having a secure jail,” not outside Georgia.

“We are very pleased the court firmly established inmates in the Fulton jail cannot be transferred out of state,” a spokesperson for the Fulton public defender’s office said Monday. “Though we were not granted a writ of mandamus, we are proud to prevent the men, women, and children at the Fulton jail from being disappeared into a private prison in Mississippi. We will not stop fighting for our clients, their safety, and their rights.”

The sheriff’s office released a statement late Monday saying Labat was hoping for “true partnership” with the public defender’s office to serve county inmates regardless of their location.

“We will continue to explore and implement visionary measures to reduce the jail population by outsourcing inmates within the State of Georgia,” the statement said.

Faced with a chronically overcrowded main jail, Labat has sought to send inmates to other facilities. But he has said staffing woes keep the county from fully using contracted sites nearby.

So in September, Labat proposed moving up to 1,000 inmates to Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, operated by CoreCivic; and the D. Ray James Correctional Institution in Folkston, run by GEO Group.

Kenner immediately sought a writ of mandamus to block that plan, arguing that sending inmates nearly 300 miles to Folkston and 400 miles to Tutwiler 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, his filing said.

A week after an Oct. 19 bench trial, McAfee denied Kenner’s petition. But his ruling also said state law “does not permit the Sheriff to transfer detainees outside of Georgia.”

Furthermore, “in response to a specific inquiry about the Mississippi facility, (Sheriff’s Chief of Staff Michael) Shoates testified that he did not believe the Tallahatchie County arrangement remained on the table,” McAfee’s ruling said.

That leaves the Folkston facility as a possibility, but the legal requirement to move inmates to the “nearest county” feasible calls that into question too.

Jail population at 901 Rice St. has been steadily declining since Feb. 22, when it held 2,944 inmates, according to sheriff’s office statistics. It stood at 1,974 as of Oct. 29, when the county held 2,971 inmates altogether.

That total is 717 above target capacity, which is the same as the 2,254-person “operational capacity” of the main jail.

At that time the county held 390 in the former Atlanta City Detention Center, 193 in the Union City jail annex, 111 in Marietta and Alpharetta jails, and 303 “out of county” — mostly in Cobb, Forsyth and Oconee counties, according to sheriff’s office statistics.

The county has contracts to hold up to 1,320 inmates in the Atlanta City Detention Center, Cobb, Forsyth and Oconee, but the “operational capacity” is only 748 due to the staffing shortage Labat cites.

Ten inmates have died in county custody this year, mostly in the Rice Street jail. 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 in the Rice Street jail medical unit 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.

Activist groups Color Of Change and the Southern Center for Human Rights opposed Labat’s plan before Fulton County commissioners in September.

On Monday, Michael Collins from Color Of Change applauded McAfee’s decision.

“Transferring people to out of state facilities separates them from family and from their homes, and there is no promise that these out of state facilities will be any better than the one they are currently in,” he said.

Collins said the solution to jail overcrowding is keeping fewer people in jail, not transferring them elsewhere or building a larger facility.

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