Fulton leases Union City jail to ease overcrowding

Fulton’s troubled jail history

2004: U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob begins overseeing a lawsuit prompted by a handwritten complaint about jail conditions from inmate Frederick Harper.

2006: A consent order in the Harper case sets population limits and staffing levels at the Fulton County jail.

2007 to 2010: To comply with the order, the county spent $60 million on upgrades, including heating and air conditioning and replacing elevators, the backup generator system and toilets in cells. With interest on the loan, the total cost will be about $86 million.

August 2011: Shoob, frustrated after learning that thousands of inmates have been sleeping on floors, threatens to lock up Fulton commissioners if they don't take action to eliminate crowding. Specifically, he wants them to buy Atlanta's 1,314-bed jail.

September 2011: Negotiations fall apart after the city more than doubles its asking price to $85 million. Fulton enters an agreement to house 200 inmates at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City. The Atlanta jail considered by Fulton has since been demolished and replaced by the new city police headquarters.

December 2011: The County Commission slashes the inmate outsourcing budget by $2 million after learning the jail's average population plummets.

April 2012: In a report to the court, Fulton says its jail population is decreasing to levels from more than 15 years ago. After telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he may not push the county to build a new jail and he may lift federal oversight within the next year, Shoob orders the county to explain its failure to comply with the order's ban on a hiring 'freeze.' County attorneys respond that the jail is not under a hiring freeze and Shoob's monitor only misunderstood the practice of requiring a form to be completed before an opening is filled.

May to December 2012: Fulton commissioners initially reject a proposal to spend $6.5 million to replace more than 1,300 substandard locks, saying it's too much to ask of taxpayers, they say, and inmates could be controlled with better supervision. But in December they vote 5-2 to spend $5 million to replace the locks.

January 2013: Commissioners vote to eliminate funding to outsource inmates to other jails, saying the inmate population has fallen below the court-imposed cap of 2,500. Jail officials predict inmates will soon be sleeping on the floor.

August 2013: The Southern Center for Human Rights threatens to take Fulton County back to court over jail overcrowding, saying scores of inmates are again sleeping on the floor. The commission votes to lease the Union City jail to ease overcrowding.

Seven months after eliminating payments to ship Fulton County inmates elsewhere to ease jail overcrowding, the county Board of Commissioners did an about face Wednesday, agreeing to lease space — and possibly buy — the Union City jail.

Commissioners voted 7-0 to pay the city $111,750 a month to use at least 285 of 325 beds at the jail effective as soon as this week. The county also might buy the Union City facility.

The move comes as a human rights group is threatening to haul Fulton County back into court because of overcrowding that is forcing inmates to sleep on the floor at the county’s Rice Street jail.

Complying with a 2006 federal consent order to relieve overcrowding at the jail is costing county taxpayers almost $150 million, including interest on loans that funded extensive renovations and more than $53 million spent renting beds in other jails to stay below the court-imposed inmate cap set at 2,500. Last December commissioners agreed to spend $5 million to replace more than 1,300 faulty locks.

In a letter to county officials Monday, the Southern Center for Human Rights says up to 69 female and 74 male inmates have slept on the floor during the last two weeks. That would violate the consent order.

Last year Fulton County spent $4.1 million to house inmates at other facilities. But in January commissioners eliminated funding to outsource inmates as it sought to balance this year’s budget. At the time the inmate population was below the 2,500 cap, but jail officials predicted inmates would soon be back on the floor.

On Wednesday Commission Chairman John Eaves said the jail is still under its mandated capacity. But he said more space will provide jailers flexibility in housing inmates and prevent them from sleeping on the floor.

“We just determined we need some additional space and this is a great deal for the county,” Eaves said.

Though the inmate population remains below the cap, jailers need more space for a number of reasons, such as to give them the flexibility to house male and female inmates separately and to house gang members separately, for instance.

Under the terms the commission approved Wednesday, Union City would be responsible for utilities and maintenance of their jail. But Fulton County would staff the facility, Adger said.

Fulton would get credit for the lease payments in any future agreement to purchase or lease/purchase the Union City jail.

The recent proliferation of inmates sleeping on the floor is the latest setback in Fulton County’s lengthy effort to end federal oversight at the jail.

The Southern Center filed a federal lawsuit in 2004, claiming unsanitary, dangerous and overcrowded conditions threatened the safety of inmates. In 2006 Fulton agreed to improve conditions under a consent order, and the county has been working under the court’s supervision ever since.

In 2011 the county considered buying Atlanta’s 1,314-bed jail. But the deal was scrapped after the city more than doubled its asking price to $85 million.

In January the county asked Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob to release it from the consent order. But Shoob denied the request, saying Fulton had not made enough progress.

Also in January, commissioners voted to eliminate funding for sending inmates to other jails. Almost immediately some female inmates were back on the floor, Adger said. Some male inmates started sleeping on the floor in May and June, but the numbers grew substantially last month, he said.

In Monday’s letter, the Southern Center decried conditions it said “pose an imminent and substantial danger to the safety and security of the people who are detained in the jail and the officers and staff who work there.”

Eaves said he believes the commission’s action will address the problem.

Meanwhile, the county is preparing to replace the faulty locks at its current jail. Adger said the work will begin in September and should be finished by March.

While the work is in progress, some male inmates may have to be housed at other jails. But Adger said Sheriff Ted Jackson is negotiating with his counterparts at other facilities to use their jail space at no cost. That would involve Fulton County providing staffing for those facilities, Adger said.

Staff writer Rhonda Cook contributed to this report

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