Judge orders Fulton officials to buy downtown Atlanta jail

Or else they’ll be the ones who are locked up

Judge Marvin Shoob had heard enough.

After seven years of listening to reports of overcrowding at Fulton County’s problem-ridden jail on the west side of Atlanta, the federal judge last week issued a blistering mandate to county officials: Start negotiations to buy the city’s downtown jail or get fitted for prison stripes.

“Additional jail capacity is needed immediately, and the only immediate solution is acquisition of the City Jail,” Shoob wrote in his Sept. 1 order. “The County defendants are out of other options, largely due to their own lack of planning and foresight.”

There’s good news and bad news in this, the most recent chapter of Fulton’s ongoing struggle to ensure its Rice Street facility meets minimum standards for detainees. Atlanta has signaled its willingness to sell its own jail, even after discussions with the county fizzled in May 2010. The bad news is that the price for the city jail has gone way up — at a time when Fulton County is facing a budget deficit.

Shoob’s ultimatum stems from a 2004 lawsuit — one of many over the years — filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights that painted a picture of a dangerous and overcrowded pretrial detention center where, according to the complaint, “neither correctional staff or inmates are safe from violence.” Raw sewage seeped from drains. Cell locks didn’t work. Officer shortages led to tense conditions, including fights between prisoners. Originally designed for 1,375 inmates, its population had ballooned to more than 3,000, with many prisoners sleeping on the floor. In 2006, Shoob ordered Fulton County to address the problems.

Fulton officials have mainly addressed the problem by funding programs aimed at reducing the number of recidivists and outsourcing detainees to jails as far away as South Georgia — a stop-gap measure that’s cost taxpayers more than $42 million since 2006.

A $60 million renovation, part of the settlement with the SCHR, helped fix the leaky ceilings and sewage bubbling up from the toilets. And Sheriff Ted Jackson, elected in 2008, has significantly improved jail management. But despite hiccups of progress, overcrowding remains a problem. According to the court monitor assigned to keep tabs on jail conditions, nearly 1,400 detainees slept on the jail floor in August.

Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman, who two years ago tried to broker a deal with Fulton County to sell the municipal jail to the county for $34 million to help fill a budget deficit, says the city’s open to lending a hand. But now Atlanta wants $85 million — more than double the initial asking price. Any deal would be contingent on a contract provision allowing the city to lease beds in the jail it once owned.

The city’s rationale in hiking up the price is that officials want to create a reserve fund to protect the city’s ability to house prisoners in the future. Should the overcrowding problem continue, there’s no guarantee that Shoob or another federal judge wouldn’t overrule the contract and kick Atlanta’s detainees — many of whom are booked for such quality-of-life violations as public urination and intoxication — out of its leased beds. Since many of the city inmates are released within a day or two, incarcerating them an hour away could create a logistical nightmare.

“We’re not asking for full replacement cost, which would be over $100 million,” Aman says. “But we do feel we need to be compensated for the risk of losing the space for detainees sometime in the future.”

What’s more, CL has learned — and Aman has confirmed — that other groups, including Corporate Corrections of America, a private prison company, have shown interest in buying the jail.

Even Shoob has acknowledged that buying the city’s jail isn’t a long-term solution for Fulton County, which he estimates will need 5,000 more beds in the next 15 years. The county might have no other choice than to do what the judge himself recommended in 2004: Expand the existing Rice Street facility or build an entirely new jail.

State Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, who previously represented North Fulton on the County Commission, recalls plans for a jail expansion — with a price tag of more than $150 million — being conducted in 2006 or 2007. But the proposal never made it to a vote.

It’s unlikely the construction project would’ve gained much steam. Outsourcing detainees for a few million dollars each year is a relatively small sum compared to building a $150 million jail. And unlike many local governments, Fulton County doesn’t have a capital improvement program, which would help officials prioritize needed construction or equipment purchases. Instead, what often gets built first are pet projects specific to individual commissioners’ districts — i.e., an aviation museum and a new amphitheater in South Fulton.

Atlanta Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who opposed selling the jail to Fulton, says unloading the jail would mean city and Fulton taxpayers would be paying twice for a building they already bought. He says the city and county should first consider integrating its criminal justice systems, which he says could save both local governments jail space and tens of millions in dollars.

“The real correction needs to be in the court system,” says Bond, whose brother works at the city jail. “The way they expedite cases, the way they handle their cases, and to get justice meted out more readily.”

Riley agrees and says the Fulton County district attorney and courts — as well as the state, which often transfers prisoners from the lockup — deserve scrutiny.

“It’s a bigger picture than just saying that the jail’s overcrowded,” says Riley. “You need to look at reasons why. It’s no secret that Fulton County has no reserves and is looking at a deficit gap in 2012. This certainly isn’t the time that they’ll be able to find millions and millions of dollars to acquire another jail and then millions and millions to operate it.”

Shoob noted that county commissioners have the power to issue bonds and raise taxes to pay for needed improvements. Save for Fulton Chairman John Eaves, who in a statement says he takes “Judge Shoob’s order very seriously,” commissioners have kept mum. CL’s emails and phone calls to all commission members and County Manager Zach Williams were not returned.