Judge gives Fulton an ultimatum on jail

A federal judge has given Fulton County Jail and Fulton County officials until late June to explain where they plan to find extra cell space when crowding forces inmates to sleep on the floor because there aren't enough beds.

Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob’s order filed Tuesday was in response to a quarterly report from his jail expert that an old problem was back; crowding was requiring some inmates to sleep on the floor in contraptions called "boats." A “boat” is a plastic contraption place of the floor and in which sheets, pillows and blankets are placed for inmates with no bed. It is so named because it resembles a curved, one-person canoe.

Shoob’s order, based on the report from the court-appointed jail monitor, Calvin Lightfoot, gives the county 45 days tell him what Fulton will do to secure more beds for jailed, mostly untried, men and women.

Lightfoot wrote in his most recent report that 716 inmates were sleeping on the floor in the area of the jail where they come in to be processed. The report covered the first three months of this year.

Jail officials said they were unable to respond late Tuesday to questions about the number of inmates in the jail and how many are currently sleeping on the floor. A spokeswoman said Sheriff Ted Jackson had not “received the order and will respond as appropriate to Judge Shoob.”

A federal lawsuit was filed against the jail, the county and the state Department of Corrections in 2004 describing the facility as dirty, dangerous and crowded, with the root of the problem being too many inmates in the lockup. A consent order was signed in 2006 that demanded tens of millions of dollars in renovations and set staffing levels and a cap on the number of inmates in the jail at any given time.

The county also has spent millions to rent space in other jails at a cost of $35 to $67 a day per inmate. That is how the inmate population was controlled.

In the meanwhile, there have been on-again, off-again efforts to secure Atlanta’s jail for county inmates. Lightfoot wrote that all such negotiations have “STOPPED" despite "inmates sleeping on floors in the intake and women’s housing units of the Fulton County Jail and fewer available out-sourced beds in other counties.”

The concern of the judge, the monitor and the sheriff has been that the county cannot assume there will always be beds to lease in other jails when the inmate count is high in Fulton's.

In recent months, however, the jail has kept the inmate population below the 2,500 cap the judge has set most of the time.

“This was made possible mainly because of Fulton County renting beds from other Georgia counties and cities,” Lightfoot wrote. “Even though the Fulton County and the sheriff are in compliance with inmate population orders within the consent decree, Fulton County must bring on additional cells. County defendants continue to maintain no action to bring on additional cells. They seem to be satisfied with using outsourced Georgia counties and city jails. However, the sheriff being aware that there is no guarantee that cells in other counties will be available in the future, began developing initiatives … to address the need to add cells.”

One possibility is obtaining a closed state prison in DeKalb County, according to the report. According to the judge’s order, the sheriff has been looking into that option, but he needs support from the Fulton County Commission.

“Fulton County has discontinued negotiations with the city of Atlanta to acquire the ACDC [Atlanta City Detention Center] and does not appear to be pursuing acquisition of Metro State Prison,” Shoob wrote. “Participation of the county will be necessary to realize either of these options.

“Mr. Lightfoot recommends that Fulton County be required to report to the court on its plans to acquire additional cells for the Fulton County Jail to relieve the problem of inmates sleeping on the floor.”

The judge has given the county 45 days.