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Why Does Atlanta Want to Lease Its Jail to Fulton County?

Supporters call the move necessary to address overcrowding, while critics say the plan promotes mass incarceration.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis say the lease arrangement is necessary to alleviate overcrowding at Fulton County Jail. (Hans Neleman/Getty Images)

As local leaders and criminal justice advocates eagerly await the results of a Fulton County Jail inmate population study expected to be released this month, Atlanta’s recent decision to lease jail space to the county has drawn accusations of increasing mass incarceration.

In August, the conversation around overcrowding in metro jails got contentious when the City Council voted to lease up to 700 beds in the 17-story Atlanta City Detention Center to Fulton. Ten council members voted in favor of the lease and four voted against it.

The four-year lease, which has no option for renewal, would allow the county to house detainees at ACDC for $50 per day. The city is also entitled to 65% of phone and commissary fees generated by Fulton County detainees.

Mayor Andre Dickens, Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis say this lease is necessary to alleviate overcrowding at Fulton County Jail.

“It is evident that there is a humanitarian need when you walk through that facility,” Dickens said after announcing the agreement. “When confronted with hundreds of men sleeping on the floor, throughout the hallways, the humanitarian response to that is to do something.”

The move by Dickens has been applauded by Fulton officials, who say this is a step in the right direction toward addressing the overcrowding. Critics of the plan say it doesn’t come close to addressing the systemic issues that led to the problem.

How did we get in this position? Here’s what’s at stake and what we know so far.

What’s the difference between the city jail and the county jail?

ACDC was built in 1995 and can house 1,300 inmates. It is owned and operated by Atlanta and was originally used to hold anyone arrested within the city for breaking a local, state or federal law.

In January 2003, the city transferred the responsibility of detaining people arrested for breaking state laws to Fulton and DeKalb counties. Since 90% of Atlanta is in Fulton, the majority of people arrested are taken to Fulton County Jail.

Since then, ACDC has only held people arrested for violating city ordinances or people arrested by federal law enforcement, as needed.

Until 2018, the city had been leasing part of the detention center to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In response to the family separation policy enacted by the Trump administration and demands from activists, former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms canceled the ICE contract.

Throughout 2019, ACDC had an average of 123 inmates each day, less than 10% of the jail’s capacity. In recent years, that number has dropped to fewer than 50 inmates a day.

What are the issues at the Fulton County jail?

Overcrowding and disrepair at Fulton County Jail have been an issue since long before Labat took office. In the past few years, female and juvenile detainees have been held at a jail in Union City, but overcrowding has remained an issue.

According to Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Chris Brasher, before March 2020 there were over 2,400 inmates at Fulton County Jail, which is designed to hold just over 2,500 people. Ten percent of those inmates were unindicted, meaning they had not been charged with a crime.

Now, the jail has more than 3,400 inmates, with 50% who are unindicted. 

Brasher explained that this jump is attributed to an increase in violent crime since the start of the pandemic and the fact that the superior court is operating at half of its pre-pandemic numbers with criminal cases.

He explained that this is because juries for criminal cases can only be selected in-person every two weeks, compared to once a week prior to the pandemic. Civil cases, on the other hand, are operating at their pre-pandemic numbers because juries are selected via Zoom.

Data from the county shows that there are 435 men sleeping in makeshift beds, called boats, on the floor. The mayor went on to emphasize that there would be extreme penalties for the county continuing to house inmates at ACDC past the four-year lease.

This, however, does not mean the county can immediately begin transporting inmates to ACDC.

Why are activists against the lease?

Activists and law enforcement agree that the conditions in Fulton Jail are inhumane. However, activist groups say it is because there are people in jail that shouldn’t be there.

“We don’t want another facility, we want a better criminal justice system,” said Robyn Hasan, executive director of Women on the Rise. The organization was created by and for formerly incarcerated women.

Hasan, like many of the city’s activists who have been calling for the city jail to be shut down completely, believed their goal was within reach over two years ago.

In May 2019, with the support of Bottoms, the City Council voted to close the ACDC and formed the “Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center Task Force.” 

The task force was made up of elected officials, activists, religious leaders, university professors, attorneys and municipal employees.

Labat, who was then the chief of corrections for Atlanta, sat on the task force, which delivered a 25-page report in June 2020. The report included four suggestions for how ACDC could be transformed into a new Center for Equity, described as a place to “advance racial and economic equity, promote restorative justice, and invest in the well-being of individuals, families, and communities”:

Equity Podium

This plan would only require the facade of the building to be replaced. Tenancy for this new building would be split between the Center for Equity and other non-center tenants. Funding for the center would come in part from the revenue generated by the non-center tenants. This plan also notes that it leaves open the possibility for the center to expand into the full building in the future. Estimated cost: $40,040,000

Downtown Anchor 

Downtown Anchor would not require the demolition of any part of the building. Instead, the building would be renovated to include all the programs and services to support Atlanta residents that the task force suggested. Groups the center would specifically target are the formerly incarcerated, unhoused people, community groups, immigrant communities, the LGBTQ+ community, and other vulnerable populations. Estimated cost: $65,440,000

Center for Equity Campus

The Center for Equity Campus suggestion would require the demolition of the ACDC for a completely new building. Like the Downtown Anchor, this suggestion would incorporate the task force’s suggested programs. Estimated cost: $108,080,000

Distributed Equity 

This proposal calls for turning the land into a greenspace. The ACDC would be demolished and replaced with a park, urban farm, memorial, or seed bank. The programs suggested by the task force would instead be decentralized and spread throughout the city. These smaller, neighborhood-oriented centers would be allowed to specialize their offerings based on the needs of the communities they serve. Estimated cost: undetermined

Why are some local officials for the lease?

Labat was elected to be Fulton County Sheriff in November 2020 and sworn in the following January. He then began campaigning for the county to purchase ACDC from Atlanta because of overcrowding at Fulton Jail. 

At the time, Bottoms did not support selling the city jail to Fulton. When Dickens was sworn in as mayor, he proposed that the city lease beds in the jail to the county.

The legislation to lease the jail was introduced by council member Michael Julian Bond  at Dickens request. According to Bond, the county estimates that anywhere from 60% up to 85% of Fulton County Jail’s inmates were arrested within Atlanta’s city limits.

“I felt that we were more than duty bound to assist them with the human rights crisis of the overcrowding in the facility. And even though it’s only 700 beds that we’re leasing to Fulton County, I really felt it should have been more,” Bond said.

Alton Adams, chief operating officer for justice, public safety and technology at Fulton County, shared that while serious efforts are being made to address overcrowding, there is still a need to lease the beds at ACDC.

Adams cited the initiatives such as the COVID-19 Case Resolution Project, which is designed to reduce the massive backlog caused by the pandemic. When the program kicked off in early December 2021, there were 149,200 open and active cases. As of Sept. 4, 2022, there were 73,454 open and active cases.

In addition to 300 beds leased in Cobb County, Adams noted that Fulton has introduced night court to hold some bond hearings after hours to reduce the case load.

Activists who are upset with the lease proposal are calling out the county for saying its initial plan is to move inmates from another county-operated jail in Union City and asking how that would deal with overcrowding at Fulton Jail.

What’s next?

An amendment was introduced to the City Council lease bill that would require a study of Fulton County Jail’s inmate population.

The amendment got seven yes votes and seven no votes. City Council President Doug Shipman cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the amendment.

The study is expected this month and will provide a breakdown of the inmate population at the county jail. This information will include the number of inmates, why and how long they’re being detained, and whether they were out on bond.

Jail population reviews have been done in the past by other municipalities and usually accompany an effort to reduce inmate populations. Activist groups in Atlanta like Women on the Rise say they have been asking for the county to make the data publicly available, but were always denied until the amendment was passed.

The county has 30 to 90 days to provide the study to the council. It is expected to be released this month.

Capital B is publishing this story as part of ATL Budget, a civic engagement project done in partnership with Atlanta Civic Circle, Axios Atlanta, Canopy Atlanta, and the Center for Civic Innovation, to help you understand where your tax dollars will go — and how you can have a say about it. To keep up, follow #ATLBudget on Twitter and Instagram, and sign up for our newsletter here