Fulton County remains unable to free itself from federal oversight of its jail after county commissioners rejected a proposal to replace more than 1,300 faulty locks on cell doors. A supporter of the measure, late for the meeting, missed the vote.
County Commission Chairman John Eaves thought he had the four votes necessary to finally fix the lock problem — one of the last major hurdles the county must clear to get out from under a federal consent decree that has cost county taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. But his plan unraveled Wednesday when Northside Commissioner Tom Lowe arrived at the regularly scheduled meeting 3 1/2 hours after it began.
“It’s baffling. It’s really baffling,” said Melanie Velez, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed a 2004 lawsuit claiming the jail was dirty, dangerous and crowded, leading to the consent decree.
Lowe, who is frequently late and leaves meetings early, said he was tied up with an important business matter Wednesday morning and declined to elaborate. Through much of the remaining meeting, he appeared to be napping.
Earlier this year, his late arrival at a meeting almost caused Atlanta to lose animal control services, as Lowe was the fourth vote to keep the service going amid a dispute with the city and county over whether to ban elephant bullhooks. Eaves took criticism for reconvening that meeting later in the day and holding a second vote.
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Lowe, who said he would have voted for replacing the locks, acknowledged Wednesday evening that he has an obligation to be present for votes. “I understand that; it’s my job,” he said.
But he said he doesn’t like listening to some commissioners’ protracted grandstanding on many issues, and he makes no apologies for dozing off. Especially, he said, while Vice Chairwoman Emma Darnell is talking.
Darnell could not be reached for comment.
One of Lowe’s constituents, Sandy Springs neighborhood activist Tochie Blad, called his late appearance disappointing.
“It was important that this get resolved today,” she said of the locks debate, “and clearly, Lowe’s absence led to it being deferred.”
Eaves had a meeting scheduled next week with U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob where he planned to iron out a timeline for ending court supervision. Exasperated by the deadlock, he blasted the three commissioners who voted against new locks but held off on criticizing Lowe.
“The citizens of our county deserve better than what we’re getting right now,” the chairman said. “These folks are absolutely dragging their feet on this issue, and enough is enough.”
The shoddy locks are one of two major issues left that, if corrected, would resolve the long-running federal lawsuit that has already cost taxpayers about $140 million. Most of that was spent on extensive renovations and for renting beds in other jails so the number of inmates in Fulton’s lockup remains below a population cap of 2,500 that Shoob set.
For much of this year, Fulton County has said in court filings that it wanted to get out from under court oversight, even though the county has not yet complied with all the requirements in the consent decree. The Southern Center for Human Rights and an expert working for Shoob have said that won’t happen until all 1,300 locks are replaced and the jail has enough staff working at the lockup all the time.
“We’ve made very clear what needs to happen,” Velez said. “The absolute priority is to make sure the Fulton County detainees and employees there are safe. The major impediment is the locks. They need to be replaced, and they [Fulton County] are not getting out from under the consent decree until that happens.”
But some commissioners maintain that the real problem is jailers not properly supervising inmates. Commissioner Bill Edwards said the county could spend millions fixing locks, only to be told about some new problem that needs fixing.
“What’s next after the locks?” he said. “How many more millions are we going to have to spend trying to get out from under the consent decree?”
Darnell said $5 million would be better spent on senior services or other programs for disadvantaged residents. Under the proposal, the county would pay for the locks by going deeper into debt, adding the expense to an existing $54.7 million loan that funded mandated upgrades to the jail’s plumbing and its heating, air conditioning and elevator systems.
Including interest, the locks would bring the total cost to $92.7 million.
“I wish I lived in a world where dollars did not matter,” Darnell said.
The current locks are old and parts are no longer available. Consequently, inmates can easily open doors, using soap, toilet paper, pieces of cloth or cardboard.
With inmates roaming free around cell blocks, staff and other inmates — virtually all of them not yet convicted of crimes — are in danger of sexual assault or severe attack.
“We’re going to have a tragedy on our hands because these locks have not been replaced,” Velez said. “I just don’t understand it.”
The county has acknowledged in court filings that it “recognizes its duty to provide functioning jail locks.” It’s been a problem for Fulton for well over a decade, with county officials and three different sheriffs’ administrations being warned repeatedly that inmates can get past them.
This year, commissioners have repeatedly put off spending money on a fix. In May, they balked at spending $6.5 million to replace the locks. Instead, they ordered staff to refine the cost estimate.
Last month they voted 5-1 to hold off on a decision. At that time, Lowe expressed willingness to approve new locks, but Commissioner Liz Hausmann first wanted to know about locks used by other counties.
Without Lowe, Wednesday’s vote failed 3-3.
“Even if it’s not a prerogative to get off the consent decree, it is a safety issue that’s important to protecting the lives of people,” Eaves told the board. “To me, when you know there’s a problem and you don’t do anything to correct the problem, we become the problem.”