Opinion: Those in Fulton jail are people just like us

Ten years ago, we were talking about the problems at Rice Street Jail -- just with a different set of players.
The Fulton County Jail is seen from Jefferson Street, where defendants indicted alongside former President Donald Trump last week have begun to surrender at the Fulton County Jail.

Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Fulton County Jail is seen from Jefferson Street, where defendants indicted alongside former President Donald Trump last week have begun to surrender at the Fulton County Jail. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

The fabric of the faces of Fulton County – like America – is no different in a jail than it is in a big-box store or a Taylor Swift concert line, or a park, church parking lot, hospital waiting room, classroom, or the lobby or elevators at work.

People who are detained in county jails are the same as people we encounter all day every day – yes even in the places where we allow ourselves to be most comfortable.

Their families and loved ones have the same fears, frustrations, dreams and excitement as all the rest of us. We live side by side. We work, vote and do business in the same ways, driven by the same ideological debates and diversity of values.

Kate Boccia

Credit: contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: contributed

More than 60 million families live every day in the full life experience of jail and prison and waiting in, or visiting, a county jail for weeks to get the chance to prove someone’s innocence. We aren’t “those” people; we are your neighbors, constituents, employees, employers, teachers, pastors, leaders, coaches and customers. Yes, even the inmates themselves. Inmates are us.

And the jail doesn’t belong to any one sheriff. The jail is ours. The jail is us.

With the current media spotlight shining on our Fulton County Jail as arguably the most famous and notorious jail in the country, there couldn’t be a better time for citizens to click an extra couple of clicks to understand the deadly predicament. To ask questions in concert and with emphasis. To amplify as a community-interest priority solving the jail problems that are costing us billions of dollars and, more importantly, costing us lives and destroying families and communities.

Ten years ago, we were talking about the Rice Street Jail -- just with a different set of players. Commission Chair John Eaves became Commission Chair Robb Pitts. District Attorney Paul Howard became District Attorney Fani Willis. Sherriff Ted Jackson became Sherriff Patrick Labat. We had the same issues then as we do now: overcrowding, too many unindicted people, understaffed, deteriorating and dangerous conditions. Oh, and faulty locks.

Nothing has changed. We continue the blame game and arguing about how much to spend, or not to spend, or how big to build. Move the inmates to other jurisdictions (out of sight, out of mind)? Build a new jail -- $2 billion and 5 more deadly years to complete? Somehow move people through the courts faster? Get rid of cash bail? Stop arresting so many people?

Slow down and read this. How’s about we tightly coordinate and scale what is actually working in small, discrete and underfunded ways. Like pre-arrest diversion, accountability courts, community programs linked in concert with schooling programs and creative curricula, evidence-based family stabilization and restorative justice models, substance use and mental health treatment continuum of care for as long and as much as such care is measured to be needed.

A couple of extra clicks would even reveal that some gang intervention programs actually work. They are just isolated from effective coordination. By the way, this is only a partial list of things and ideas that work.

We also need to change policies and laws. Quit putting people in jail for things like nonpayment of traffic tickets and child support arrears. I’m not saying excuse accountability. But think strategically in other ways. Rethink cash bail for nonviolent charges, a horrible reality for those who simply can’t afford to bond out, who must stay for days, weeks and even months while they await trial, losing everything along the way, including their minds.

Fulton County, the whole world knows of the community that seats the great city of Atlanta. One of the most vibrant and progressive, socioeconomically and culturally diverse counties in America. Georgia thrives on commerce and Fulton County is a major driver of that commerce. Businesses need to grow and protect their bottom lines. Build it right and they will come and stay, grow more and produce more and consume more. That’s the ultimate goal.

Yet we work against this simple formula and against ourselves when we continue to ignore or undercalculate just how much families and loved ones of those who are unnecessarily or unsafely locked up are financially impacted in ways that affect how we spend and produce and grow in our shared promise.

Not to mention those who are already struggling with poverty and who can hardly afford the cycle of living desperately and the cost of default lockup. The broader costs of their peril have an exponential impact on Fulton County. They, in their varied situations, are all of us.

It’s a pretty serious time for Fulton County. “Deadly” is a serious word.

Among us all and from us all should come a concert of demands of elected officials, to simply and sincerely ask the sheriff what he needs. Pay attention to exactly what he says. Reverse the trend of only selectively listening to the people we all pay to run the jail. Resource the sheriff’s office to partner with professional entities that can solve recruitment and staff retention issues.

Commission and empower around the sheriff a reinvigorated task force of justice-impacted thinkers and social innovation leaders who are doing extraordinary work, along with court, correctional and policy officials who still think outside of the box and businesspeople, educators and social scientists.

Demand of our elected officials that they enable what those in the trenches articulate as viable approaches to root-cause redirection of our deadly, out-of-control reality.

We will never move forward to clean up the deadly messes in measurable ways if we don’t all own the problem and demand concerted action now. Otherwise, new jail or not, in another 10 years we will surely be having this same conversation.

Kate Boccia is founder and CEO of the Roswell-based National Incarceration Association, which advocates for criminal justice reforms.