Fulton delays vote on fixing jail locks

Fulton County has again put off replacing more than 1,300 substandard door locks at the Rice Street jail, one of the last shortcomings keeping the jail under federal oversight.

Jailers say the locks are so shoddy that inmates can pop open cell doors at will, leading to attacks on staffers and other inmates. A monitor appointed by a federal judge agrees.

But several county commissioners say the problem has been overblown, and instead of going $5 million in debt to buy new locks, they maintain the Sheriff’s Office just needs to do a better job supervising inmates.

“We have a management problem, quite frankly,” Commissioner Robb Pitts said Tuesday, just before the board voted 5-1 to hold off on a decision until its next meeting on Dec. 5.

Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said a jail must have functioning locks. But he agreed managing inmates also is an issue.

“One of the problems is understaffing,” Bright said. “When you don’t have enough staff to monitor the inmates, they start jimmying the locks. These are so interrelated.”

The jail is operating under a federal consent order that stems from a 2004 lawsuit that Bright’s group filed on behalf of inmates seeking relief from overcrowded, filthy and dangerous conditions. Compliance is costing taxpayers a total of nearly $140 million, including jail renovations and the cost of housing inmates in other facilities to stay below the court’s population cap.

The order also requires that locks be in good working condition, and fixing them would be a major step toward shaking off the order.

“We need to regain our autonomy,” said Commission Chairman John Eaves, who was visibly frustrated by the lack of action Tuesday.

Chief Jailer Mark Adger said the locks are so old that replacement parts aren’t available because this line of locks has been discontinued. Inmates can jam them with soap, toilet paper or pieces of cloth, or open the sliding doors with cardboard, so they can get out of their cells and sexually assault or attack other inmates or harm staff.

“I think it’s the highest priority,” Adger said. “It’s the basis of your security, having locks that operate the way they’re designed to operate.”

The county wrote in its required monthly report to the court that Fulton “recognizes its duty to provide functioning jail locks.”

But the locks have 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.

Commissioners have repeatedly put off spending money on a fix. In May, they balked at a proposal to spend $6.5 million, ordering staff to refine their cost estimate.

But Commissioner Bill Edwards said he feared the county would never satisfy U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob, who is handling the case, or his jail expert. Adding bed space, another of the monitor’s recommendations, would cost the county tens of millions of dollars more.

Edwards said new locks would be “putting a Band-Aid on the cancer.”

“And by the way,” he said, “this is a $5 million Band-Aid.”

The proposal is to pay for new locks by 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.

Jail expert Calvin Lightfoot, Shoob’s monitor, wrote in his most recent quarterly report that the county is “jeopardizing the safety of the inmates and staff at the Fulton County Jail.”

“Inmates must be in cells with locking systems that they cannot compromise and come out at will; and staffing levels must be maintained,” he wrote.

The county has written several times that it wants to be released from court supervision by the end of the year, offering    assurances the rest of the agreement will be met later. Eaves said he’s “extremely confident” that he’ll have enough votes to replace the locks at the next meeting. He lost his needed fourth vote Tuesday because Commissioner Liz Hausmann wanted information on the kinds of locks used by other jails in the metro area.

Lightfoot and Bright have both said Fulton will not escape court oversight until all the requirements of the consent order are met.

“The whole reason we filed the lawsuit was because of these things,” Bright said. “You can’t say at the end of eight years, ‘We haven’t done what the courts have ordered us to do, but don’t worry, we’ll do it.’ ”