Fulton leases 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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