Last week, the world watched as the nation’s highest Court abridged rights that many held inalienable. The January 6 Committee revealed the abuses suffered by Georgia poll workers in the aftermath of the Big Lie. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s political leadership continues to be influenced by the newly re-elected councilwoman, who attempted to help former President Donald Trump overturn Fulton County election results.
Despite staunch opposition from constituents, Atlanta City Councilperson Mary Norwood is rumored to be lobbying her colleagues to support a measure to help Fulton County’s sheriff increase his incarceration footprint. Two weeks ago, led by Communities over Cages Alliance, grassroots organizations, medical professionals, electoral organizers and legacy residents flooded public comment before Atlanta City Council as they considered Mayor Andre Dickens’ budget. They were speaking out because, despite the now three-year-old promise to transform the nearly empty Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) into a facility that can provide desperately needed resources to Atlantans, the proposed budget included a $16 million line item for the jail.
Looming in the ether just above city hall is pressure from Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat to get his old jail back. ACDC was his facility when he served as the city’s chief of corrections. Despite campaigning on improving jail conditions, Labat has joined the ranks of Fulton County leadership, who have refused to take meaningful action to reduce the jail population.
Like sheriffs before him, Labat’s plan to address overcrowding is to use public funds to lease jail beds and shuffle the bodies of incarcerated people around the state. As sheriff, Labat has the constitutional authority to address overcrowding. He can extend earned time credit and release those scheduled to go home in the immediate future. Labat also has the power to draw on partnerships with stakeholders such as Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who in May of 2020 stated publicly that the jail should hold no more than 1,000 people.
But Fulton County leadership consistently fails due to limited imagination. Instead of heeding medical professional warnings in April 2020 by releasing 800 people to avoid medical disaster, Fulton leadership instead unsuccessfully sought for $23 million to build an isolation unit at the jail. After being sued by the office of the public defender for failing to manage the pandemic in the jail properly, Fulton’s law department fought advocates and blocked relief for vulnerable people.
In April 2022, the county settled a lawsuit filed in 2019 for its abuse of women with mental health disabilities. Due to overcrowding, these women were already housed in the separate South Fulton annex. This demonstrates that moving people to different facilities is not responsive to the broader need to reduce the jail population.
Labat’s appeal to acquire ACDC is grounded in the fallacy of carceral humanitarianism, which begs for nicer jails but rarely considers why America warehouses so many human beings behind bars. Rather than demanding that we invest in mental healthcare, housing, education and substance use treatment, this shallow discourse invests in incarceration as the only well-funded response to harm. Labat recently conceded that Fulton’s jail, built in 1989, was “overcapacity from the start.”
And while the recent prosecution of high-profile entertainers brought this jail’s horrid conditions into the national spotlight, Fulton has been embroiled in controversy about its treatment of incarcerated people for decades. The jail has even been subject to federal intervention. There are currently over 2,600 people in the main Fulton County jail, significantly exceeding the jail’s original design accommodating 1,900 people. It’s also nearly double expert recommendations that the jail holds no more than 1,500 people.
After failed attempts to pressure former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to turn the jail over to him, Labat entered into an intergovernmental agreement with neighboring Cobb County for temporary bed space. It’s worth noting that Cobb County successfully reduced its jail population in response to concerns about COVID-19.
With a new administration, the sheriff’s public focus on acquiring ACDC has re-emerged as a conspicuous priority, even as he has also commissioned a $1.2M study to make way for a new multi-million dollar Fulton County jail. Although Labat has yet to use even 250 available Cobb County beds, he boasts a possible lease of 500-800 beds from Irwin County, over three hours from Atlanta. Such a move would burden primarily Black and poor Atlantans visiting loved ones. How many beds will be enough with what feels like an ever-moving goalpost?
Sheriff Labat has yet to produce data detailing who is in the jail. This lack of transparency raises red flags because understanding who is in the jail and why is key to determining how to cut the jail roster. This data will also reveal who languishes behind bars in inhumane conditions either because they cannot afford cash bail or because courts have failed to manage the backlog caused by the pandemic responsibly.
Fulton’s leadership has repeatedly failed to meet the moment as more progressive jurisdictions move forward. Attempts to lay guilt for draconian conditions at the feet of the Atlanta City Council while concealing critical information inappropriately absolves Fulton County of its responsibility to address the problem it created. But regardless of crime statistics, the Fulton County jail’s history has been troubling.
Many jurisdictions have successfully implemented compassionate release policies and shifts to recognizance bonds. They have discovered that court date compliance can be managed through alerts, flexible scheduling, and other supports to avoid loss of employment and ensure care for children.
Atlanta’s Policing Alternatives & Diversion initiative (PAD) was designed to provide services and non-law enforcement responses to harm but is woefully underutilized and underfunded. Even PAD funding is conspicuously missing from Dickens’ budget, despite the program having the capacity to stem the flow of people into Fulton County’s jail. Unfortunately for Atlantans, Instead of considering thoughtful initiatives, local officials appear more concerned with ensuring that our jails are full.
Instead of being persuaded by Labat’s appeals and Norwood’s advances, Atlanta leadership should recognize that the county has the tools to solve its overcrowding problem. It simply lacks the courage to use them. Many opposing the closure of ACDC are exploiting this moment to pursue their own longstanding agendas. This endangers important strides of local movement.
Atlanta must move forward with plans to close and repurpose ACDC by passing pending legislation to repurpose the facility, which even has support from the family of late Congressman and Atlanta hero John Lewis. The continued enablement of Fulton County’s addiction to cages is an investment in the long-term suffering of Atlantans that we simply cannot afford. Putting humanitarian lipstick on mass incarceration does nothing to address its harm.
Tiffany Roberts is the Public Policy Director at Southern Center for Human Rights, a community organizer, criminal and civil rights attorney and former Fulton County public defender.