Exterior of Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Fulton’s jail population is still too high, plans to reduce it stall

The number of inmates held in Fulton County continues to climb, as the jails’ population has exceeded their capacity and no solution has been found.

On Tuesday, there were 3,131 inmates in facilities that have a maximum capacity of 3,048 people. The main jail, which can house 2,591, had 2,692 inmates, while the south annex, which houses female inmates, has a capacity of 260 and held 273 people. The remainder are in city annexes.

Three weeks ago, Fulton County leaders expressed concern about the numbers, with county attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker calling the overcrowding “a critical situation” that was likely to get worse. Fulton County had long been limited in how many inmates it could hold in its facilities, following a 2006 consent decree in a federal lawsuit. The current population exceeds those limits.

Robb Pitts, the chairman of the Fulton County commission, said officials have been in discussions with Clayton, Gwinnett, Forsyth and Douglas counties about sending some detainees to their jails, but have not yet reached any agreements. Commissioners are slated to vote on a proposal Wednesday that would allow them to spend more money to house inmates elsewhere, but as of Tuesday afternoon, no specific agreement had been reached.

“Nothing’s changed,” Pitts said. “I think it’s an extremely serious problem that all of us need to be more aggressive in addressing.”

It’s led him to float the idea of building a bigger jail, to house more prisoners. Such a move would fly in the face of county efforts since 2016 to reduce the jail population.

Since then, the county has spent millions of dollars to reduce the population at the county’s Rice Street facility, but the number of inmates has remained stubbornly high this year. The average daily population for the system has been above 2,800 since at least January; the county’s goal was to reduce the population below 2,000 as a result of increased spending on programs that divert people from jail or move cases through the system more quickly.

County leaders said Atlanta’s decision to close its city jail has contributed to the increase in county inmates. Statistics from the Fulton sheriff’s office show Atlanta inmates make up about a third of the jail population. Col. Mark Adger, the county’s chief jailer, said previously that more people from the city were being held without bond at the county jail on failure-to-appear warrants after missing their original court dates after the city eliminated cash bond requirements for poor and nonviolent offenders earlier this year.

Additionally, a spike in crime in areas like Buckhead increased public pressure to hold criminals instead of granting them bond, county manager Dick Anderson said last month.

Adger confirmed that the county had hired an expediter, whose job is to review the jail roster, categorize inmates and outline steps to quickly move inmates through the judicial system. Commissioners are also due to vote on that contract Wednesday; it would last as long as six months and cost as much as $100,000.

“If I could wave a magic wand, I would release those who are in for misdemeanor, low-level offenses,” Pitts said.

In the resolution calling for funding for the expediter position, the county said the jail’s high population causes “an immediate safety concern for inmates and staff” and overcrowding “could lead to deteriorating conditions for inmates and staff.”

Pitts said he has a sense of urgency in ensuring that every inmate has a bed. After all, the county has a history of problems with its jail.

In April, the Georgia Advocacy Office filed a suit regarding conditions at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City, which houses female inmates. The suit said mentally ill inmates were being denied necessary health care and were being held in unsanitary conditions. Pitts said the county is working to address those concerns.

The Rice Street jail was under court oversight for 11 years before oversight was lifted in 2015. The county spent more than $1 billion to replace or repair plumbing, the heating and air system, elevators and wiring. The county also replaced the locks on every cell door.

At the time the original suit was filed, raw sewage flooded cells, inmates had to sleep on the floor, and faulty locks meant they could wander around the jail at will.

“It’s as important an issue today as it was when we first went under the consent decree,” Pitts said. “I don’t want to go through that again.”

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