OPINION: Fulton’s jail, a déjà vu horror story

In October 1989, Fulton County officials held a ceremony to open a new, “state-of-the-art” facility with 2,250 beds built to replace a deplorable, overcrowded facility.

Then-Commissioner Martin L. King III said the society must now concentrate on reducing crime, not building more jails. Otherwise, he said, “six months from now it will be obsolete.”

He was wrong. The jail was overcrowded by Thanksgiving that year.

In fact, the imposing $50 million edifice built on Rice Street in northwest Atlanta was woefully inadequate even before it was built.

Almost 1,000 cells designed to be singles were turned into two-man pods before it opened, straining the facility’s plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems from the get-go.

That jail has remained overcrowded, understaffed and in legal battles pretty much ever since.

And the horror has never abated.

In November, The Southern Center for Human Rights released a report saying inmates in the understaffed jail were suffering from malnourishment, lice and scabies.

In April, a mentally ill detainee bit off part of a guard’s ear, according to records.

In May, authorities say, an inmate dug through a crumbling wall to shank another inmate. Officials say the jail, and a smaller Fulton facility in Union City, last year had 11 fires, 114 stabbings and 534 fights.

And last week, the family of Lashawn Thompson, a homeless man locked up for minor offenses, held a press conference to say he was “eaten alive” by bedbugs while in the jail’s psychiatric wing. A Fulton County Medical Examiner report lists his cause of death as undetermined; a privately funded autopsy cited “complications due to severe neglect.”

As this occurs Sheriff Pat Labat is lobbying the county commission, and the public, to build a new jail. In April, he led an AJC reporter and photographer on a tour of the facility. As they proceeded, one inmate shouted, “There is no running water. There’s mildew in the ceiling.”

Another implored, “Shut this place down!”

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat gives a tour of Fulton County Jail on March 30, 2023, in Atlanta. (Natrice Miller/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Labat doesn’t disagree, although he must prevail over sticker shock. A new jail would, according to a study, cost $2 billion, 40 times the cost of the 1989 facility.

I’m told there’s no comparison between the two. The new jail would have 5,480 beds and twice the square footage per inmate — from 510,000 square feet to about 2.2 million. It would also have improved mental health facilities and space for programs aimed at education and reentry.

Figuring out how to pay for it will be the trick. Floating bonds would cost perhaps $100 million a year and assuredly would mean property tax increases.

While searching AJC files on the subject, I found the term “déjà vu” has been muttered more than once.

“It sounds just like 40 years ago,” Gary Leshaw told me. He ought to know; he was one of the attorneys whose lawsuit led to building the jail they now want to demolish. “The (previous) jail was in bad shape. The main problem that caused all the other problems was overcrowding.”

Leshaw thinks getting another one built “will probably take another court order. If they do (build another) I hope they do it right, so that the merry-go-round can end, the one that’s been going for 40 years.”

Lawsuits criticizing jail conditions have been constant. In 1999, the Southern Center for Human Rights sued because of inadequate care for inmates with AIDS.

That lawsuit had mission creep and transformed to another, filed in 2004, that aimed to end overcrowding.

Inmates are seen using a kiosk in their cell block that allows them to schedule visits and medical appointments during a tour of the Fulton County Jail on Monday, December 9, 2019, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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“It’s been a disaster,” said Stephen Bright, former director of the Southern Center, who oversaw the lawsuit. He said those running jail “weren’t mean. They were totally incompetent. They let out people they should have kept in and kept in people they should have let out. They kept people in on silly charges. Basic stuff like that.”

The deplorable conditions were evident in 2003 when I made an unofficial visit inside while writing about a priest who said Mass for the incarcerated. I was shocked. Many of them were covered in scabs and wore dirty, tattered uniforms. The squalor reminded me of the movie “Papillon.”

A 2005 AJC story headlined “Jail at Bursting Point” could have been written any year since 1980.

Federal Judge Marvin Shoob took special interest in the case and the jail was kept under his steely eye for another decade.

In 2015, federal Judge Thomas W. Thrash lifted the federal oversight. The county had argued it spent $1 billion in renovations, repairs, staffing, ongoing programs and renting beds in other jails to meet court demands.

I spoke with Calvin Lightfoot, a career corrections official who served as the federal monitor of Fulton jails. “I predicted when I left that the jail would go back to the way it was,” he said. “Without the power of the federal court overseeing them, they don’t (make improvements).”

Of hearing the plan to build a 5,400-bed jail, Lightfoot said, “That’s a sad, sad commentary of where we are.”

Said Bright, “No matter how big they build it, they’ll fill it up.”