OPINION: Closing Atlanta’s jail doesn’t make dollars or sense

The Atlanta City Detention Center and the Fulton County Jail.

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The Atlanta City Detention Center and the Fulton County Jail.

Overcrowding at Fulton County’s jail is nothing new.

More than 20 years ago, a federal judge ordered the county to do something about it. It tried.

Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat says he now oversees about 3,200 prisoners, some 2,600 at the main jail, with about 400 sleeping on the floor.

Labat has pushed for a newer, bigger facility that would provide more humane treatment and increased efficiencies. But that would cost half a billion dollars.

In the meantime, he must farm out prisoners to other jails. He said he is working out a deal to rent space to keep 400 to 800 prisoners at a facility in Irwin County, 190 miles and three hours south of Atlanta.

Last year, federal immigration authorities removed prisoners from the Irwin facility because of deplorable conditions. And it would cost $80 per prisoner per night, meaning it would cost $15 million a year if Labat shipped 500 prisoners down there.

And, of course, this would be a burden on prisoners’ families, but this is where we are.

Three miles away from Fulton’s overcrowded jail sits the 1,300-bed, barely used Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC for short), owned by the city of Atlanta.

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September 8, 2021 Ocilla - Exterior of Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla on Wednesday, September 8, 2021. The Biden administration announced this year that the Irwin County Detention Center will stop holding federal immigration detainees. The move – which is set to happen by Sept. 17 -- follows an explosive whistleblower complaint alleging many female immigrant detainees who were held there received unnecessary and abusive medical care. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

September 8, 2021 Ocilla - Exterior of Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla on Wednesday, September 8, 2021. The Biden administration announced this year that the Irwin County Detention Center will stop holding federal immigration detainees. The move – which is set to happen by Sept. 17 -- follows an explosive whistleblower complaint alleging many female immigrant detainees who were held there received unnecessary and abusive medical care. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
September 8, 2021 Ocilla - Exterior of Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla on Wednesday, September 8, 2021. The Biden administration announced this year that the Irwin County Detention Center will stop holding federal immigration detainees. The move – which is set to happen by Sept. 17 -- follows an explosive whistleblower complaint alleging many female immigrant detainees who were held there received unnecessary and abusive medical care. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

For years, soft-hearted city council members and the former mayor wanted to close the concrete fortress and turn it into an “equity center,” where people could receive social services like mental health or help to acquire job skills or affordable housing.

This, of course, would be a facility where the offices would have very thick cement walls and slits for windows and perhaps even steel toilets in the middle of the room — because it was built to be a JAIL!

The effort to close and “re-imagine” Atlanta’s jail has paused with a mayoral regime change and a public that in the past couple of years has swung from calling for a reallocation of police funding to “damn, those street racers are annoying.”

Increasing, violent crime has again forged a lock-’em-up mindset in the public. According to Atlanta police stats, violent crime (murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery) is up 39% in the first 22 weeks of this year compared to the same period in 2019, the last non-COVID year.

But the close-the-jail effort lives on. Recently, city council members heard that sentiment from an auditorium full of people.

Citizens holding signs demanding “Care not cuffs” strolled to a podium for two hours at a budget meeting, telling council members to defund the city jail. At the meeting attended by doctors, lawyers, activists and students, Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari, who is new, said she is in solidarity with the speakers and urged them to lobby Mayor Andre Dickens on the issue.

“In many ways, we are manufacturing a human crisis,” she said.

Councilmember Jason Dozier, who is also new, largely agrees with Bakhtiari.

“I look forward to seeing it be closed and renewed into a diversion support service,” he said in an interview, adding that the city must target the root cause of crime. “I’d hate to take a step back. I want to make decisions based on data, not on public perception.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Fulton County Sherrif Patrick Labat looks over the street outside the Fulton County Court during the selection of the special grand jury to investigate allegations that former President Donald Trump criminally interfered with Georgia’s elections in 2020. Monday, May 2, 2022. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Fulton County Sherrif Patrick Labat looks over the street outside the Fulton County Court during the selection of the special grand jury to investigate allegations that former President Donald Trump criminally interfered with Georgia’s elections in 2020. Monday, May 2, 2022. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Combined ShapeCaption
Fulton County Sherrif Patrick Labat looks over the street outside the Fulton County Court during the selection of the special grand jury to investigate allegations that former President Donald Trump criminally interfered with Georgia’s elections in 2020. Monday, May 2, 2022. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The city jail, which opened in 1995, has become an absurd, even bizarre situation. The city is seeking $16 million this year to run the facility, even though it houses an average of only 46 prisoners each night. It operates at a 4% capacity.

The reason the jail is so empty is because the council in 2018 voted to allow most of the prisoners brought there (who are arrested on city ordinance violations, not more serious state criminal charges) to be released without having to post cash bail.

And, not surprisingly, many of those arrestees don’t show up in court. According to a Channel 2 Action News report, “failure to appear” cases have jumped 80% since the policy was enacted.

“The deconstruction of the Atlanta City Detention Center was methodically done by people who had their own agenda,” said Labat, who ran that jail before getting elected sheriff in 2020.

Councilmember Michael Bond, who once was a guard at the city jail and has, off-and-on, served on the council for 30 years, contends that the cries to close the jail “are not reflective of the citizenry of Atlanta.” He said the city jail could readily accept 500 prisoners from Fulton, which is fitting because some 80% of those in the county jail were arrested by Atlanta police.

“The way the (city) jail is, we’re not getting the economy for the taxes we are paying,” Bond said. “If the sheriff is forced to make these arrangements (to ship away prisoners), well, those who want to close the jail are creating unintentional consequences.”

I spoke with Devon Holloway, who moved into the Pittsburgh neighborhood in 2015, across the street from a store known for shootings. It’s better these days in the neighborhood just south of downtown. And he’d like it to stay that way.

He agrees with Bond and Labat.

“I think the county should get it, as opposed to turning it over to become a homeless shelter,” Holloway said. “Public safety is the top issue on everyone’s list. These people who do things need to be held accountable.”

Seems like Atlanta should just hand over the keys.