Grand jury requests special probe of Fulton jail’s problems

A grand jury is seeking an in-depth investigation into Fulton County’s jail to determine why officials have failed for a decade to end prisoner overcrowding and staff shortages that make it both unsafe for guards and inmates, and expensive and embarrassing for taxpayers.

The grand jury zeroed in on personnel policies that have helped leave about 100 vacancies for guards unfilled. It also looked into why the jail often exceeds a court-ordered cap of 2,500 inmates while Atlanta’s jail appears to have plenty of space. The city and county have been at odds over a fair price for housing county prisoners in the city jail since it stopped taking in prisoners if they were the responsibility of the Superior Court.

“It seems like we are suffering from a lack of common sense,” said Gillen Young, foreman of the recently ended grand jury that issued the report.

Grand juries usually focus on whether to indict people in criminal cases. But they are also allowed to investigate public officials and institutions.

The just-dissolved grand jury looked into both the jail and Fulton’s school system. It wanted to determine why the jail has been a constant “black eye” for the county and see whether the school system — in light of education scandals in the city of Atlanta and Clayton and DeKalb counties — carried a similar risk.

It determined that while Fulton’s schools are operating well, a special grand jury should dig into the problems that have plagued the jail.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said he would forward the grand jury’s request to the Superior Court in hopes that it would “bring an end” to a 10-year-old lawsuit against the jail.

In 2004, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit against the jail outlining chronic overcrowding, and safety and health problems plaguing the jail. A federal court placed the jail under monitoring, and taxpayers have spent more than $200 million over the years to renovate the jail, pay debt connected to the construction work and outsource inmates. But the jail has fallen back into violation.

Fulton Commissioner Bill Edwards told The Atlanta Journal Constitution that Thursday’s report might have been political machinations at the behest of Howard, whose office presents evidence to the grand jury.

“Strange things happen in an election year,” Edwards said.

As to jail staffing, Edwards said commissioners have repeatedly asked Sheriff Ted Jackson for a staffing plan but have not received it. “I can’t tell you if it’s adequate unless he gives us a plan,” Edwards said.

Jackson declined to comment on the grand jury report.

Young said it was grand jurors’ idea to conduct the inquiry, and he noted during a press conference Thursday that during their inquiry, they received conflicting information about the jail.

County officials, he said, told the grand jury that the 100 guard vacancies had been funded, but the grand jury also heard that accrued vacation and comp time policies could be preventing them from being filled.

The report noted that the chief jailer has 300 days of pay that are due to him when he retires. “He will get a large check and the county jail will have to wait for a new jailer until the difference is covered in the budget by having the position go unfilled until accrued vacation has been paid,” the report said.

Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves said in a statement that he appreciated “the thoroughness and the seriousness” with which grand jurors approached their investigations.

“We remain committed to resolving remaining issues in the jail and ensuring that happens quickly and efficiently,” Eaves said.

County commissioners awarded a $4.8 million contract last summer to replace almost 1,400 faulty door locks, a process that is currently ongoing and has caused more inmates to sleep on floors because of a lack of bunk space. County commissioners also agreed to pay to house female inmates at the Union City jail, although they have canceled similar contracts to house male inmates elsewhere.

Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, placed the failure to resolve the issues firmly with the County Commission.

“Everyone agrees that the staff and inmates are in grave danger of injury, perhaps even death, and no one is acting with any sense of urgency,” Bright said. “The County Commission keeps kicking it over every time they have a meeting.”