Poor health care.
An editorial in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution summed up conditions this way: “The old jail is overcrowded and crumbling. Designed to hold 884, its inmate population has approached twice that at times.”
That was written in 1989 -- just a few weeks before Fulton County completed its then-new jail on Rice Street.
The editorial referred to the old county jail on Jefferson Street, which was built in the early 1960s. Its flaws of decades ago sound identical to those of today’s facility.
In response to a 1982 class-action lawsuit alleging overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at the Jefferson Street jail, a federal judge set a deadline for a new lockup. It seemed to move things along. County commissioners approved an accelerated construction plan that enabled the early transfer of an estimated 600 inmates to a portion of the new jail before the entire facility was even fully finished.
That early move-in into the portion of the jail that was rushed to completion was intended to help relieve overcrowding that saw 400 inmates on average sleeping on the floor each night back then. Some of their mattresses were beneath urinals.
The rush to move detainees into the then-new jail was fueled in part by tensions and a nonviolent demonstration inside the walls to protest the death of an inmate, squalid conditions and poor medical care at the old, crumbling lockup.
By comparison, the new, larger Rice Street jail came to be known then in some quarters as the “Fulton Hilton.”
Those days didn’t last long, as the old problems returned to haunt the new jail too.
An AJC story in September quoted this from a court filing: “Due to several factors including but not limited to overcrowding, understaffing, a dilapidated physical plant, violence and corruption among staff members, the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street is not safe for detainees.”
The numbers support that conclusion.
Between 2009 and October 2022, more than 60 Fulton inmates died, the highest total for any jail operation in Georgia during that time, according to an AJC investigation.
And so far this year alone, 10 inmates have died while in Fulton County’s custody.
Given the ongoing problems at Rice Street (or the Atlanta City Detention Center, where Fulton leases space and where a county inmate died this year), county officials are again talking about building another new jail, which Sheriff Patrick Labat says is badly needed.
A new jail is expected to cost about $1.7 billion and would not open its doors until 2029. The general plan is to build a facility about four times the size of Rice Street. The planned jail would have room for about 4,500 inmates and would also include space for mental health care, education and reentry programs that the current jail lacks.
Until the county’s plans firm up and a new jail is funded and built, Sherriff Labat says he has plans -- and is seeking county money -- to refurbish the deteriorating facility to keep it going until its replacement is ready.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has said that “The reality is we need a bigger facility and it needs to be a facility that treats people humanely.”
History shows that’s an old story in Fulton County.
The Editorial Board.