Judge may delay Fulton Jail contempt hearing

A human rights group on Monday asked a federal judge to call off a hearing set for later this week to determine if Fulton County officials have violated an order to address overcrowding and staffing problems at the jail.

The Fulton County Commission recently agreed to rent beds in other jails to address the problem of inmates sleeping on the floor. The county also plans to streamline its hiring process to address staffing shortages at the jail.

Melanie Velez, an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed a lawsuit in 2004 on behalf of inmates, said Fulton has taken steps to better conditions at the troubled Rice Street jail. “But we need to see a sustained capacity to address these problems,” she said.

The Southern Center asked U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash to leave its request for a contempt hearing open until July 31, in case the county backslides. County Attorney David Ware said Monday’s motion to postpone the hearing was appropriate, given the commission’s recent actions.

If Thrash agrees to the Southern Center’s latest request, it could be a step toward ending court supervision of the Rice Street jail. In its motion, the Southern Center said the court’s jail expert is due to deliver two progress reports on the jail over the next few months. The center wants to give Fulton time to continue its improvements.

For now, Thrash is set to hear arguments Thursday in the Southern Center’s request to hold the county and Sheriff Ted Jackson in contempt because of lingering problems at the jail.

Fulton has been operating under a consent decree since 2006. That decree led to jail renovations and other changes that, so far, have cost taxpayers more than $200 million. Currently, the county is spending $4.8 million to replace faulty locks, a process that should be completed by summer.

Fulton had made substantial progress on overcrowding. But last year, once again, starting forcing hundreds of inmates to sleep on the floor.

The Southern Center filed the contempt motion in October. But in recent weeks Fulton officials have taken several steps to address jail problems.

The Southern Center cited those efforts in its motion asking Thrash to call off Thursday’s contempt hearing.