Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat may move many inmates from the county’s overcrowded jail at 901 Rice St. to private prisons in Mississippi and near the Georgia-Florida line.
That possibility has already drawn an emergency effort from the Atlanta Judicial Circuit public defender’s office seeking to stop the transfers — or, at least, guarantee that they’re “conducted legally.”
“Neither the respondent Sheriff nor any County authority has formally advised petitioner (Circuit Public Defender Maurice) Kenner that such transfers will occur, nor has his office ever been consulted about their legality, appropriateness, timing, or logistics,” says the public defender’s filing, registered Tuesday in Fulton Superior Court. “Petitioner has, however, been informed and has a good faith belief that out-of-state transfers are imminent.”
Natalie Ammons, director of communications for the sheriff’s office, said Wednesday that Labat is “exploring this possibility.”
“He traveled to one site in South Georgia last week and is traveling to (Mississippi) this week. The negotiations are ongoing,” she said via email.
The number of inmates moved, and when, are yet to be determined, Ammons said. Such long-distance inmate transfers haven’t previously been done by Labat, nor by previous Fulton sheriffs, she said.
Robb Pitts, chair of the Fulton County Commission, was more specific on his “Chairman’s View” blog.
“A decision was made to reach out to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi and the jail in Folkston, Georgia near the Florida border,” Pitts said.
The Tallahatchie jail is operated by private-prison company CoreCivic. It can hold more than 2,500 inmates.
The D. Ray James Correctional Institution in Folkston is owned and operated by private-prison company GEO Group. It can hold more than 2,800 inmates. It has previously been used for federal immigration detainees, but that use is being phased out.
Moving Fulton inmates to Folkston would put them nearly 300 miles away, while Tallahatchie is about 400 miles.
The public defender’s office argues in its petition, filed Tuesday in Fulton County Superior Court, that the transfers would seriously damage attorneys’ ability to represent inmates effectively. The public defender’s office routinely represents about 80% of those in pre-trial detention in Fulton County, the filing says.
The main Fulton jail is not only overcrowded but has seen an unprecedented wave of inmate deaths. Ten inmates have died in custody this year, either in the jail or in the hospital. Six deaths have occurred in the past six weeks.
Between 2009 and October 2022, more than 60 Fulton inmates died, the highest total for any jail in Georgia during that time, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
The Sept. 13, 2022, death of Lashawn Thompson sparked an ongoing federal investigation of jail conditions, and Fulton County recently settled with Thompson’s family for $4 million. His cause of death was officially undetermined, but he was found covered in insects and bug bites.
Pitts’ blog post says there is consensus among county officials, including the sheriff, that the immediate solution to jail overcrowding is to transfer up to 1,000 inmates to other facilities.
“Both of these are viable options but are located more than four hours from Fulton County. Transferring inmates to Tutwiler and Folkston will take time and cost taxpayer’s additional money,” he wrote.
Pitts said he supports exploring those options but prefers expanding the county’s lease of space in the Atlanta City Detention Center and perhaps transferring inmates to the low-security U.S. Penitentiary on McDonough Boulevard.
The county has a deal with Atlanta to use the formerly shuttered detention center for up to 700 inmates.
“Those inmates must meet certain criteria, which has prevented us from transferring the full 700 inmates contemplated in the (intergovernmental agreement),” Pitts said.
He wants to broaden those criteria and expand the deal to use all 1,300 beds at the facility.
According to statistics on the sheriff’s office mobile app, Fulton’s total jail population Tuesday evening was 3,474 — or 1,220 above target capacity.
That included 2,462 in the main Rice Street jail, 171 in the Union City annex, 66 in Marietta, 438 in the city detention center, 22 in Alpharetta and 315 held out of county. It describes the detention center as having a contract capacity of 700, but an “operational capacity” of 456.
The public defender’s office agrees the Rice Street jail is substandard.
“Due to several factors including but not limited to overcrowding, understaffing, a dilapidated physical plant, violence and corruption among staff members, the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street is not safe for detainees,” the court filing says.
The filing says the defender’s office has written Labat to protest out-of-state transfers but otherwise could not stop him. The Georgia Supreme Court has held that trial courts can order the sheriff to transfer a prisoner from a jail deemed unsafe to the nearest county with a secure jail, it says.
The public defender’s petition, for which a hearing has not yet been scheduled, goes on to denounce the county’s court backlog and high bond demands that result in low-level offenders sitting in jail up to 10 times as long as they otherwise would.
“And there is the filth and fear of the jail, where poor people languish — because they are poor — in conditions not fit for animals,” it says.
The public defender’s office declined to comment further Wednesday, citing the active litigation.
The county is planning a new, much larger jail, but it’s expected to cost $1.7 billion and wouldn’t open until 2029. Labat has requested millions to keep the old Rice Street jail running until then. County staff have earmarked several million for that “bridging plan” this year but county commissioners’ decision to keep the property tax rate steady means less than projected will be available for jail funding in the future.
Recently Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis weighed in, saying, “the reality is we need a bigger facility and it needs to be a facility that treats people humanely.”