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The county got back control of the jail in 2015. That came only after Fulton spent upwards of $1 billion to renovate the building, rent beds in other jails and implement accountability courts to keep people out.
"I feel like that lawsuit and resulting consent decree have helped decrease the number of people over the capacity of the jail, so I think it's a good thing. I think it's a way to hold governments accountable," said Rep. David Dreyer, an Atlanta Democrat and head of the Fulton House delegation.
An inmate is seen in a cell block during a tour of the Fulton County Jail on Monday, December 9, 2019, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Credit: Elijah Nouvelage
Credit: Elijah Nouvelage
As part of that legal struggle, a judge ruled that the jail must stay below 2,500 inmates. Fulton Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said there were 2,358 people housed there on Monday.
Including the roughly 400 from the other three facilities, Flanagan said there were 2,773 inmates throughout Fulton on Monday. But that number can easily balloon to 3,000, which it reportedly did in June.
Near-capacity conditions aren’t just uncomfortable. Experts say extra stress on the system causes conditions to deteriorate, making it more dangerous for inmates and staff.
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Dreyer, who said he hadn’t been in the jail before, didn’t like people sleeping in the oblong cots — nicknamed “boats” — to keep them from sleeping on the ground. Jail staff said 144 people are sleeping in the cots.
“If I’m in general population like that, I have no space to go to the bathroom, to read, I don’t know how long you can survive that way. We have to keep pushing to make sure we get these jails (below) capacity,” he said.
In addition to decency, Dreyer said another factor is that this is a pre-trial facility, meaning most of the people here are still innocent because their cases haven’t been resolved.
“The odds are that there are innocent people in that building, and we have to remember that when we’re talking about this issue there,” he said.
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Fulton’s chief jailer Col. Mark Adger explained to legislators that the Rice Street jail can hold 2,500 inmates, but they aren’t just randomly assigned units in which to live. To avoid a riot: rival gang members can’t be bunked together; 17-year-olds must be separated from adults; and the 200 inmates detoxing off opioids in November can’t be around just anyone.
“These youngins didn’t learn how to grow up,” Adger said. “They just hit the streets and kept on running.”
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Then those with mental health issues sometimes need to take space that could house two inmates just to keep everyone safe. He said that 21% of the county’s inmates take medication for mental health issues that they have reported.
Legislators got to see the clinic, where medical director Dr. Julia Wilson said she and her staff most commonly treat hypertension but sometimes handle issues as serious as a brain tumor.
Inmate Joseph Wheat is seen in the kitchen during a tour of the Fulton County Jail on Monday, December 9, 2019, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Lawmakers also toured the kitchen, where inmates prepared 9,094 meals Monday for all of the county’s four jails. Breakfast can be cereal, lunch is a cold sandwich, and dinner Monday was a beef and vegetable stew made by Joseph Wheat.
The 42-year-old native of the Campbellton Road area told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter that he was happy to “better myself” by learning a marketable skill like cooking.
He’s been there since September on a burglary charge, meaning he spent Thanksgiving in jail. He tried to make the best of it.
“I ain’t never fried a turkey before,” Wheat said. He said he was thankful it went well.
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It's part of the jail's new beginnings program.