The Fulton County Jail is running a contest that actually encourages inmates to pick cell door locks.
Any inmate who can compromise new cell door locks will get free food and personal hygiene items from the commissary -- all used as forms of currency inside jails.
The jail is testing new locks to see if they will keep inmates inside their cells.
"We're going to get our worst offenders and put them in there and they're going to be true to their natures," said Col. Mark Adger, chief at the jail. "I've got nine cells and we'll fill all nine with our worst lock-popping offenders and we'll see if they can get out."
The locks have been a problem at the Fulton jail almost from the day the newly constructed building opened 23 years ago.
Inmates have been able to easily pop internal door locks and get into the common area or reach others inside their cells. Inmates and staff were in danger, though the general public was not, since inmates getting out of their cells would still face many difficult hurdles to break out of jail.
The locks have been a sticking point with a federal judge and his court expert in a lawsuit concerning the sometimes dangerous conditions inside the jail. Fulton's jail has been operating under a federal consent order since 2003 and one of the lingering issues is the locks on cell doors.
Calvin Lightfoot, who is the expert working for the judge overseeing the lawsuit, said the contest idea is a good one.
“It may be unconventional, but the FBI and bankers will hire bank robbers to consult with them on how they can make the banks better. It’s the same thing. The inmates are going to do all they can to defeat these locks. It sounds like a novel idea to me. ... They have to find a way to keep these inmates from getting in and out of these cells.”
A few years ago the company that made the existing locks stopped production. Now parts are not available.
Sheriff Ted Jackson, who is responsible for the jail, has asked the Fulton County Commission for $6 million to replace the locks.
The commission is still deciding what, if anything, it will do about the shoddy cell door locks.
In the meantime, new locks designed specifically for the Fulton jail have been installed on nine doors in one zone and they will be tested in the contest, Adger said.
The last new lock was installed Thursday morning and inmates will be moved into those cells in the next few days, he said.
Several companies offered proposals, but Willow Products in Decatur, Ala., specifically designed a lock and a mount for the Fulton jail's cell doors. The new design has a green light that will indicate if the door is securely locked, a feature current locks don't have, Adger said.
The cost is $1,600 for each of the 1,300 cell doors that swing open. The cost increases for 300 doors that slide to open and close.
"Everything we've put on in the past ... was to modify the current hardware, which has failed," Adger said. "This will solve the problem once and for all."
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