Fulton can’t shake federal oversight of jail

Federal oversight of the Fulton County jail will continue because the county has not sufficiently improved conditions for inmates, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

The Rice Street jail has been under federal supervision for seven years.

On Tuesday, Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob denied the county’s request that he terminate his oversight of the facility, saying that with inmates reportedly sleeping on floors again because of funding cuts, Fulton may be violating its agreement to improve conditions for inmates.

The county remains under a 2006 consent decree stemming from a lawsuit filed on inmates’ behalf over dirty, dangerous and overcrowded conditions in the facility. Complying with terms of the order is costing taxpayers almost $150 million, including interest on loans that funded extensive renovations and more than $53 million spent renting beds in other jails to keep the number of inmates below a cap set at 2,500.

Shoob noted that the county has yet to replace more than 1,300 faulty locks, which inmates can open at will to carry out assaults, and hire enough deputies to adequately staff the jail.

“Today these promises remain unfulfilled,” the judge’s decision, filed Tuesday, said. “To achieve termination of prospective relief, the law requires results, not more promises.”

His decision wasn’t unexpected, and it means the county could remain under federal supervision well into 2014. While Fulton has said the locks will be installed by summer, Shoob’s jail expert has predicted it will take until the end of the year, and he wants to see how they work for at least six months before declaring that problem is solved.

“We’re gonna be under that consent order for years,” said County Commissioner Bill Edwards, who believes a jail monitor being paid $90 per hour will never advise the judge to end supervision. “Every time we get close to the bar, they raise it.”

Ending the consent order would save taxpayers, at the very least, thousands of dollars per month in monitoring costs, which with expenses has totaled about $500,000 since 2006.

County Commission Chairman John Eaves and other officials asked Shoob to terminate the order because the jail is now safe, clean and no longer overcrowded, and all but a few requirements of the order have been met. The judge reminded the county in his decision that he told Eaves in December to return with that request once the locks were fixed.

A hopeful Eaves, however, officially made the request a few weeks later, after finally getting enough votes to go $5 million in debt to fund the project.

Shoob cited the county’s history of backsliding when earlier lawsuits over jail conditions were settled in past decades. Suits have been filed on behalf of inmates four times since 1982.

He also said the county’s promises “ring especially hollow” since the commission recently cut about $700,000 for housing inmates in outside jails, which the chief jailer said has already caused some female inmates to sleep on plastic crates on their cell floors. Shoob called that “a clear violation of the consent order.”

Eaves was on a plane to Los Angeles for a conference Tuesday evening and could not be reached for comment.

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