As Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat led a tour of the perpetually overcrowded county jail, inmates yelled from their holding cells.

“There is no running water, there’s mildew in the ceiling.”

“Shut this place down!”

“It has not been cleaned in months and years.”

Similar complaints echoed throughout the 34-year-old building during the tour, and Labat doesn’t really disagree.

The tour took place two weeks before the publicized death of a mentally ill inmates covered in bug bites. Labat has since fired top members of his administrative staff and begun reviewing legal options to change the jail’s health care provider.

Elected as Fulton’s new sheriff in 2020 after a 30-year career that included running Atlanta’s city detention center, Labat is a strong proponent of building a new jail designed to function very differently from the existing jail’s “warehousing” of prisoners.

“This jail represents an old way of thinking,” he said.

Views of the dorm that holds inmates with mental health issues at Fulton County Jail shown on March 30, 2023. Plans for a new multibillion dollar facility on the 35 acre campus are underway. (Natrice Miller/

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

But a new way of thinking presents significant hurdles, including a $2 billion price tag — more than $100 million per year for county taxpayers — and moving several functions off of the current campus.

The jail at 901 Rice St. was designed to hold 1,125 inmates. It was considered obsolete upon its 1989 opening, and has been overcrowded for decades. Occupancy passed 3,000 during COVID-19. On March 30, most of the county’s 3,700 inmates were housed in Rice Street, Labat said.

In 2022, the Rice Street facility and the much smaller Union City jail saw a combined 11 fires, 114 stabbings and 534 fights, according to a consultant’s report. Overcrowding and the Rice Street jail’s generally poor condition has made it hard to hire and keep staff, leaving 17% of the jail’s authorized positions unfilled, the report said.

And the jail has made more bad headlines recently.

In September, a 35-year-old man died in one of the jail’s mental health cells after being held for three months on a misdemeanor charge. Lashawn Thompson’s family alleges in a lawsuit that he died covered in bedbugs and that jail staff ignored his deteriorating health.

Thompson was one of 64 inmates who died in the Fulton jail between 2009 and October 2022, the most of any Georgia jail during that time.

On April 14, the sheriff’s office announced it would move more than 600 inmates to jails in other counties, at a cost of about $40,000 per day. The county is also spending $500,000 to deal with bedbugs, lice and other vermin at the jail.

Consultants hired by Fulton County recommend building a new jail with 5,480 beds, and double the current room per person: from 510,000 square feet to nearly 2.2 million. They recommended building it adjacent to the current jail, which would remain open while the new one is constructed.

Initial construction is projected to take nearly three years, from 2026 through 2028, with additional space added in phases. On April 12, county commissioners agreed to soon consider a project management contract to keep potential completion of a new jail on that timeline.

Consultants, in line with Labat’s philosophy, propose building a jail to “create a normative (not punitive) environment,” focus on case management and reentry services, and provide amenities that help retain staff.

Views of a cell in the medical observation unit (MOU) at Fulton County Jail shown on Thursday, March 30, 2023. The area monitors inmates with acute mental issues. (Natrice Miller/

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

Currently 90% of the jail is housing. The consultants’ report proposes that only 38% of a new jail be regular housing units, with another 30% for health care and mental health housing. Twelve percent of the new space should be devoted to programs and services.

The jail is one of several buildings on a 44-acre piece of county-owned land, counting the location of Fulton County Animal Services across Marietta Blvd. The animal shelter is due to be replaced this fall by a larger facility four miles away and its site may become jail employee parking.

In addition to the animal shelter and the jail, there are three other buildings in use on the site. All would have to be demolished and their uses reestablished elsewhere for the new jail to be built, probably in other buildings the county already owns, said Alton Adams, county chief operating officer for Justice, Public Safety and Technology.

There are no cost estimates for those moves, he said.

Growing needs

Metro Atlanta is expected to grow by more than 1 million people in the next 25 years, with a corresponding growth in jail population.

The existing jail has seen constant piecemeal upgrades. Now inmates have their irises scanned upon entry and again on exit to make sure the right person is being released. But most records are still on paper, something Labat wants to change.

In a back room, the sheriff displays a massive collection of old files. When he was elected in 2020, hundreds of them were “stacked to the ceiling” in an otherwise unused building, he said.

Views of the classification room at Fulton County Jail on Thursday, March 30, 2023. The room holds the paper files of every former inmates. (Natrice Miller/

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

“As an individual comes in we have to manually check every one of these records,” Labat said. He wants to have them digitized, but the latest quote for that work was more than $1 million, he said.

Adams said many county offices await the same upgrade.

Making jail records electronic would not only free up space but speed the process, and iris scans could be attached to them, Labat said.

Once new inmates have been booked, they grab plastic-covered bedrolls and head upstairs to the jail’s housing units. At meal times they get what’s prepared in the jail’s warehouse-like kitchen, where inmates and staff cook in huge tubs and assemble individual meal packages on long counters.

They make more than 10,000 meals a day, Labat said — for Rice Street, and facilities in Alpharetta, Marietta and Atlanta, where hundreds of Fulton inmates are held because there is no room for them at the main jail.

Views of a "Stack A Bunk" makeshift bed on the floor inside Fulton County Jail shown on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Plans for a new multibillion dollar facility on the 35 acre campus are underway. (Natrice Miller/

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

Labat led the small group tour to one of the jail’s regular housing units: a large concrete room with upstairs and downstairs cell doors, two metal tables, and peeling paint on the walls. A few inmates lay in foam “boats” on the main room’s floor because there weren’t enough cells available.

“What happened to my TV, fellas?” Labat asked.

“Guy got mad, broke it. He gone, but we’re suffering,” an inmate replied.

Other inmates, all dressed in flip-flops, scrubs and T-shirts, said a shower didn’t work, the air conditioning “works when it wants to work,” and they were short on cleaning supplies. Labat and Maj. Dexter Jenkins listened and took notes.

On another floor, a burning smell pervaded the air. Labat said inmates sometimes receive legal mail soaked with drugs or even roach spray, which they smoke. Coming soon is a $600,000 device that will scan mail for chemical residue, he said.

Labat showed off an “honor dorm,” voluntarily cleaned and painted by inmates under supervision.

“They restored this whole area themselves,” he said. It was cleaner and neater — and the TV worked — but still hot. There, too, inmates had complaints.

“Water won’t stop running,” one said, as Labat took notes.

The jail has four main elevators. All work now, but for nearly three months only one was operating, Labat said. County Manager Dick Anderson said the sudden freeze in late December knocked many elevators out of commission countywide, at a time when parts were in short supply.

Views of wall damage and leakage in the inmate bathroom at Fulton County Jail shown on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Plans for a new multibillion dollar facility on the 35 acre campus are underway. (Natrice Miller/

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

Stagnant situation

The county has an agreement to hold up to 700 inmates at the Atlanta City Detention Center, and has more than half that number there now, Anderson said. The county is also considering reopening its smaller Union City facility — closed when female inmates were moved to the Atlanta jail — in order to get several hundred inmates at Rice Street off the floor and into cells with beds.

Ideally there should be one or two deputies in each unit of cells 24 hours a day, with another in a tower, watching several units through tinted windows. But sometimes there is only a deputy in the tower to supervise 70-plus inmates, Labat said.

Labat said 54% of Fulton inmates have some mental health issue, but the current jail isn’t equipped to deal with them. One unit for prisoners with mental issues is physically the same as regular units. Some of the inmates milled around the common area while others remained locked in cells; from one cell came continuous, repetitive yelling.

Fulton County Jail correction officers walk into the honors dorm on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Sheriff Patrick Labat says the inmates in this dorm worked together to deep the space so it is the cleanest in the jail. (Natrice Miller/

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

One inmate in the common area asked Labat to look into his case. He said he had been in jail for a year without going to court or even seeing an attorney. Labat wrote down his name. Hundreds of inmates are being held without indictments — the result of a court backlog exasperated by the pandemic.

The most seriously mentally ill, and the most dangerous, are kept behind gray-painted doors in a urine-smelling medical unit where they can be watched individually. Robert Aaron Long, who killed eight people at three Atlanta-area spas in March 2021, has been held there, Labat said.

To finish the tour, Labat and Jenkins showed off a barrelful of crude, homemade knives recently confiscated from inmates. Many had cloth or string pads on the handles, with blades made of sharpened pieces of the jail itself.

Labat said he showed county commissioners 1,200 such knives as evidence that the building is literally coming apart.

Jenkins displayed larger pieces of the broken jail — from a cell in which one inmate tunneled through to the building’s exterior brick before being caught.

Views of makeshift weapons made by inmates in the contraband room shown at Fulton County Jail on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Plans for a new multibillion dollar facility on the 35 acre campus are underway. (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller /

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Credit: Natrice Miller /