OPINION: Atlanta’s jail plan a feel-good, fake fix for a real problem

The city of Atlanta and some activists want to transform the near-empty city jail into an "Equity Center." Photo by Bill Torpy
The city of Atlanta and some activists want to transform the near-empty city jail into an "Equity Center." Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

For two years, the city of Atlanta has pushed the notion of closing its massive and nearly empty jail to turn it into something called an “Equity Center,” a one-stop shop filled with services aimed at those who haven’t gotten a break in life.

Presentations of the “reimagining” of the facility would turn the 1,300-bed concrete fortress in south downtown into a “beacon of community hope and inspiration, especially for those most directly harmed by practices of mass incarceration and/or from historical disinvestment.”

Plans call for the facility to have employment programs, “financial empowerment,” mental health services, help with affordable housing, and all sorts of other worthy doings.

That it would be in the former city jail (officially called the Atlanta City Detention Center) smacks of an effort driven not by reality but by symbolism. The city is trying to say, “It’s a new day. The place where we used to lock you up is now where we will help you.”

It’s a take on the biblical beating of swords into plowshares.

But here’s the reality. The building, which opened in 1995, is a jail. It was designed as a jail and built as a jail, and it will take more than $100 million (probably much more) to turn it into something else.

Around the corner from the facility is the city’s old jail, which was built in 1983 and lasted for a dozen years until it was deemed to be too small and was closed. It was later repurposed and now is the Gateway Center, housing and training homeless people.

So, the question remains, why does the city of Atlanta have such a big, empty jail in the first place?

The city's old jail, built in 1983 and closed a decade later, became a place to house the homeless in the 2000s. Photo by Bill Torpy
The city's old jail, built in 1983 and closed a decade later, became a place to house the homeless in the 2000s. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Well, here’s the history:

Back in the day, Atlanta operated a jail next to the Police Department on Decatur Street, but by the 1970s it was Dickensian in its decrepitude. In 1983, a new facility was built on Pryor Street to house 305 inmates. Later, the city added 216 beds there, without adding space.

But the 1980s brought the crack and crime wave and packed cells. In 1992, my old AJC colleague Doug Blackmon wrote a story saying the jail, built for 521 inmates, was housing nearly twice that, with hundreds of inmates sleeping on floors.

“Atlanta’s problems are the result of poor design the last time the city built a jail and the city’s aggressive efforts to fight crime,” he wrote.

(Interesting footnote: Blackmon later won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Slavery by Another Name,” recounting how convicts in the 1800s and early 1900s — mostly Black men jailed on bogus charges — were rented out by the state to heartless industrialists. I recently saw Doug opining about the site of the Chattahoochee Brick Co., which used convict labor, and whether it should become a railroad transfer terminal or a memorial park on the river.)

In early 1995, Atlanta opened the new 1,300-bed Atlanta City Detention Center in a ceremony that drew loud protesters who argued, “This is a way to get rid of the homeless before the Olympics come!” It was not the last time that sentiment was uttered.

AJC arts and architecture critic Catherine Fox focused on the new jail in an article about concrete design, writing: “The 200-foot-tall structure is sober but not dull; it might be mistaken for an office building, with its plaza and welcoming entrance. … The curved porte-cochère fronting the entrance and the bowed panels above it give the otherwise tight-skinned building some dimension.”

Back then, Atlanta police brought all their arrestees to the city jail, whether they were blithering drunks or vicious gunmen. Then a judge would sort them out, sending those with the more serious charges to the Fulton County Jail and keeping those with lesser municipal offenses in the Atlanta lockup.

Atlanta police at a downtown crime scene in the early morning hours of December 10, 2020. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Atlanta police at a downtown crime scene in the early morning hours of December 10, 2020. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

In 2003, then-Mayor Shirley Franklin, in an effort to save some cash, decided that arrestees facing serious charges shouldn’t be brought to the city jail at all, not even for a spell before transfer elsewhere. Serious cases were the county’s responsibility, she said, not the city’s. “I told the county, ‘We’re not doing that anymore,’” she recounted to me the other day. “We called it ‘realigning services.’”

Fulton County was not happy, especially those who ran the county’s jail, because it became even more overcrowded. A federal judge suggested that the city sell or turn over its now-underutilized facility to the county. Franklin and some Atlanta City Council members worked out a plan to turn over the city’s jail to Fulton, but that plan fell apart after Kasim Reed replaced her.

For years, Atlanta’s jail created a revenue stream by renting space to the federal government. But then the practice of renting space to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold immigration detainees was ended by current Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, an act that further emptied the cells.

In 2018, the City Council unanimously allowed jailers to release those arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors or city ordinance violations (urinating in public or trespassing, etc.) on their own recognizance. The idea was noble — you didn’t want someone rotting in a cell for weeks because that person can’t afford a $100 bond.

But — surprise! — it hasn’t worked out so well. The city’s chief judge recently told the City Council that the number of people failing to appear in court jumped from 16,500 in 2017 to more than 38,000 in 2019.

“Our kindness and mercy is being abused,” said Councilman Michael Bond, who once worked at the old city jail.

This year, Fulton’s new sheriff, Patrick Labat, who ran the city jail for a decade starting in 2010, offered to take the facility off the city’s hands. The city’s jail these days now holds a few dozen inmates a night.

“I applaud the mayor’s plan for an Equity Center, but I don’t think this is the place to do it,” Labat told me. “This was built as a jail to be a jail. The best use of it is to have it remain as a jail.”

Currently, Fulton’s main jail is packed with more than 2,500 prisoners, most of them serious criminals coming from Atlanta. Labat said the city’s jail could provide “a pressure relief valve” for the county’s facility.

Left to right: Patrick Labat, then-chief of the Atlanta Department of Corrections; Joel Baker, then-chief of the Atlanta Fire Department; Kasim Reed, then-mayor of Atlanta; and George Turner, then-chief of the Atlanta Police Department, at an Atlanta public safety press conference in February 2016. (credit: Brant Sanderlin/AJC file photo)
Left to right: Patrick Labat, then-chief of the Atlanta Department of Corrections; Joel Baker, then-chief of the Atlanta Fire Department; Kasim Reed, then-mayor of Atlanta; and George Turner, then-chief of the Atlanta Police Department, at an Atlanta public safety press conference in February 2016. (credit: Brant Sanderlin/AJC file photo)

“The city has plenty of property” to build an Equity Center, Labat said. “It would cost less and they could build more.”

Bond agrees. “As long as you have Atlanta police making arrests you’ll need a place to put your arrestees. And we have a perfectly good place,” he said, mentioning the likely $100 million price tag to repurpose the jail into an Equity Center.

Actually, depending on the scale of work, such a project could cost $85 million to $135 million. And there’s an asterisk next to those numbers. Those estimates, according to the proposal, do not include “soft costs and financing costs.” And the city of Atlanta can get real Soft when it comes to costs.

“It’s Pollyannaish and becomes a ridiculous proposition,” Bond said of the proposal. “And the longer that it hangs out there, the more ridiculous it becomes.”

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