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The overlooked lockup at the center of Fulton County’s divisive jail lease plan

Fulton County’s Rice Street jail has dominated the debate over Atlanta’s jail lease. Why are women from another jail being transferred first?

Story by Emanuella Grinberg  & Contributions by Nile Kendall

Photos by Rita Harper

December 2, 2022

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How we reported this story: In August, while on assignment for Atlanta Progressive News, former fellow Adrian Coleman alerted Canopy Atlanta to a 2019 class action lawsuit, detailing how women at South Fulton Jail experienced inhumane conditions. Such incarcerated people, Coleman learned, would be the first transferred to Atlanta City Detention Center amid what county officials say is an overcrowding problem at Fulton County. “With all political and public warring about Atlanta City Detention Center and overcrowding of men at Rice Street Jail, there’s a story that has gone largely ignored,” she says. Canopy Atlanta Fellow Nile Kendall also contributed reporting to this story. Support our community-powered work today.

BARBED WIRE FENCES ENCIRCLE South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail and its greenspace in downtown Union City, Georgia, located about 20 miles from downtown Atlanta. Behind a small window, an attendant sits with a microphone to greet and direct guests. To the side of the lobby is an even smaller waiting room with four chairs and a vending machine. Across from the chairs is a line of dingy lockers. 

 

Yet what Caitlin Childs recalls most vividly about her first visits to South Fulton is the stench of urine, feces, and body odor that lingered in her hair long after she left. It was 2018 and Childs, an investigator with the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), was looking into allegations of inhumane conditions in the mental health unit of the women’s jail. 

 

“The showers were visibly moldy and smelled of mildew,” Childs told Canopy Atlanta. “I also noted numerous plumbing issues, including sinks that didn’t work at all or didn’t work correctly, and frequently leaking sinks and toilets.”

 

Even more disturbing were the women’s accounts of being kept inside a cell alone for 23 consecutive hours or sometimes longer. A woman with bipolar disorder said she started hallucinating after being isolated in her cell for weeks without the chance to bathe, exercise, or change into clean clothes. Another woman with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism said she attempted suicide twicethe first time, by swallowing pieces of a plastic spoon because she was “so tired of being locked down in my cell so often.” 

 

The accounts formed the basis of a class-action lawsuit that was filed in 2019 against the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO). The lawsuit accused then sheriff Theodore Jackson, as head of Fulton County jails, of holding women with serious mental illness in solitary confinement for excessive periods and depriving them of basic human needs, including medical care. The lawsuit made headlines last winter when current sheriff Patrick Labat agreed to improve conditions at South Fulton as part of a court-ordered settlement. 

 

Yet now, the women’s jail is back in the news as part of the heated debate over the city of Atlanta’s plan to lease 700 jail beds in downtown’s Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) to Fulton County

 

Labat and others call the plan a temporary solution to overcrowding in Fulton County jails. That primarily includes Fulton County Jail, the county’s largest lockup. The facilitycommonly known as Rice Street for its downtown Atlanta addressdominated discourse surrounding the jail lease until Labat confirmed that women from South Fulton jail will be the first transferred to ACDC.

 

But community groups that partner with the city on alternatives to incarceration say the jail lease goes against everything they’re working toward. This includes repurposing ACDC into a community-based resource center that they say could help people avoid incarceration in the first place.  

 

“There is already a plan for how to repurpose this building in a way that makes our communities safer and addresses the root causes of harm in our city,” Robyn Hasan, executive director of Women on the Rise, said in a statement. “The plan to repurpose ACDC was created by a wide range of community members, elected officials, and system stakeholders, and was sponsored by Mayor [Andre] Dickens himself when he was a council member. Why would he turn his back on his own initiative?”

 

Advocates also worry that the inhumane practices and policies documented at South Fulton Jail will persist at ACDC.

 

“Overcrowding was not the problem with the South Fulton litigation,” said SCHR deputy director Atteeyah Hollie, who worked on the lawsuit. “It was the treatment of people with serious mental illness and the locking away of people in cells precisely because of their mental illness.”

South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail

DICKENS’ OFFICE REFERRED CANOPY ATLANTA to his comments in an August public safety committee meeting where he urged city council members to pass legislation that created the intergovernmental agreement. At the meeting, Dickens stressed the temporary nature of the agreement and said revenue generated from it would be put toward diversionary services. 

 

“I do not want to be in the jailing business. However, when confronted with hundreds of men sleeping on the floors, throughout the hallways, the humanitarian response to that is to do something,” Dickens said.

 

Over the past year, it’s become apparent that Labat considers replacing Rice Street with a new building to be the long-term solution to overcrowding. As of September, according to statistics provided by Labat, Rice Street’s average daily population was about 3,600 incarcerated people, nearly a thousand more than its operational capacity. By October, Labat counted 473 people sleeping on cots on the floor. 

 

“I inherited a mess of a jail,” he said at a city council meeting. “You’ve seen the crisis, you’ve stepped over the bodies. It’s a situation we tried to deal with years ago.”

 

The sheriff’s office didn’t respond to Canopy Atlanta’s repeated requests for comment on the lawsuit and the jail lease since August. However, the decision to first transfer women from South Fulton Jail before incarcerated people from Rice Street seems to have as much to do with staffing as it does overcrowding. Under the agreement that created the jail lease, Labat said Fulton County is responsible for staffing ACDC. “Bringing the young ladies over from South [Fulton] will let us have staff there immediately,” Labat said. 

 

The highrise known as ACDC sits in the heart of downtown across from the Garnett MARTA train station. People sleep two to a cell. Each unit has six showers, a washer and a dryer, six phones, and two TVs. Each unit is separated by a common area where those who are incarcerated can commune, play cards and spend their days. A recreation area includes a half-court basketball court with a large netted window that gives the feeling of being outside. 

 

ACDC can hold 1,300 people in 22 gender-separated units that accommodate between 50 and 80 people each. Just four of the 22 units are currently in use, Natasha Johnson, ACDC’s administrative services division commander, told Canopy Atlanta. And while four units are out of commission due to repairs, the remaining 14 units are unoccupied. Fulton County inmates are expected to take up seven or eight units.

 

City councilmember Dustin Hillis, who voted for the jail lease, echoes Labat as he calls the transfer a “a stopgap measure to get people off the floor.” 

 

“Legislative bodies don’t release people from jail,” Hillis told Canopy Atlanta, adding, “We’re doing what we can. And one of those things is we have an empty jail that we can lease to the sheriff while theythe countyfigures out what they’re going to do.”

Atlanta City Detention Center

STILL, ADVOCATES MAINTAIN that more beds isn’t the solution to overcrowding.

 

Hollie, with SCHR, pointed out that South Fulton originally opened to alleviate overcrowding at Rice Street. 

 

“What I don’t understand is why the county insists on doing what it’s always done … trying to get more beds,” Hollie said. “That plan has never worked. Yet we continue to play the game every single time. And so what I don’t understand is why the city of Atlanta is buying into this game and inviting itself into this failed effort.”

 

Advocates also worry that the jail lease will disrupt plans to transform ACDC’s first floor into a center for diversionary resources. But Hillis, who co-chairs the Justice Policy Board that was established to create a blueprint for the diversion center, maintains that some version of that vision will materialize. 

 

“My wish would be, number one, Fulton County’s got to decide what they’re going to do. We end this lease agreement, it doesn’t get extended, and honestly, we demolish the jail and rehabilitate downtown,” he said. “I want a purpose-built diversion center in partnership with the county that’s going to be built from the ground up to serve the people that it shouldand not rehab a facility that looks like a jail.”

 

In the meantime, Hollie worries that the systemic problems that led to the lawsuit’s plaintiffs being needlessly criminalized and jailed in the first place will continue.

 

“It was this combination of people being arrested for minor offenses, with many of those people having serious mental illness, and then not being able to pay the bonds that are being imposed on them,” she said. “Compound that with the fact that because of their serious mental illness, they were then found incompetent to stand trial. That meant that they would have to wait in jail until space became available in a state hospital where they could go and be restored to competency.

 

“I don’t see any reason why those problems would go away, because they’re now in Atlanta instead of Union City.”

Atlanta City Detention Center

BEFORE THE TRANSFER OF PEOPLE from South Fulton to ACDC can begin, the agreement calls for a jail population review. (Johnson, ACDC’s administrative services division commander, told Canopy Atlanta December 1 that a transfer date has not been set.) The review, conducted by the Justice Policy Board and submitted to the council November 18, includes raw data on offenses people are booked under, the average length of detention, the average bond issued per violation, and reasons for release. 

 

Councilmember Hillis told Canopy Atlanta the report “checks a box” so the transfer can move forward. He doesn’t expect it to have a direct impact on the lease agreement. But he hopes it can be used to answer the bigger questions at the heart of the conflict over the jail lease, such as who needs to be incarcerated and what can be done to help people avoid jail.

 

In a letter accompanying the report, Hillis and Justice Policy Board co-chair Judge Robert Byrne said the committee hopes to use the data to “press towards policy recommendations that address ways to reduce jail population by increasing diversions and accelerating case flowsall while maintaining a focus on positive public safety outcomes.”

 

On that point, Hillis and other proponents of the jail lease may see eye-to-eye with their critics.

 

As Tiffany Roberts, director of SCHR’s public policy unit, said of the data in a recent public meeting: “This is a really valuable opportunity for the county and the city to also show the communityhow they can be helpful in getting the jail population down. Even when the 700 people are transferred, there should be a desire to ensure that no one is in that jail who could be better served elsewhere.”

Atlanta City Detention Center

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