Posted: 7:43 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013
By Rhonda Cook, Johnny Edwards
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Fulton County commissioners voted Wednesday to cut funds for renting bed space in other jails, a move jailers say will immediately force some female inmates to sleep on the floor.
The move to reel in about 280 prisoners starting Thursday comes at the same time the county has pressed to be released from a federal consent order. The judge overseeing that order has set a cap on the inmate population at 2,500.
Since 2006, the county has spent $53.4 million to rent beds in other jails to remain under that cap, one of many expenses made to comply with the consent order. In all, compliance with the order, which grew out of a 2004 suit brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights, has cost county taxpayers nearly $150 million.
In return for its release from federal oversight, the county has promised to continue making improvements to the chronically troubled jail, the target of four suits since 1982. The Southern Center, in a response to Fulton’s request that it filed Tuesday, said the county cannot be trusted follow through on those promises.
A day later, the commissioners voted 5-1 with one abstention to end funding for outsourcing county inmates. Chief Jailer Mark Adger said “that will eliminate any flexibility we have” in separating women from men and keeping gang members apart. That means some female inmates will have to sleep on the floor. And the same will soon be true for male inmates, he said.
Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said the jail has plenty of extra space now and the Sheriff’s Office can handle having all its inmates there. The money saved, he said, will go toward alternative sentencing and programs to reduce the number of repeat offenders, hopefully lowering the population even more.
The Southern Center had already opposed releasing the county from the oversight of the consent order, wanting to wait at least six months to weigh the effectiveness of the county’s most recent prior move, approving the replacement of more than 1,300 faulty locks. The locks are so shoddy that prisoners can open their cell doors using only pieces of cloth or bits of cardboard. Purchase and installation of the new locks will require the county to go $5 million into debt.
Fulton said the locks would be installed by summer. But an expert working for Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob, who is overseeing the county’s compliance with the consent order, has predicted it will take until the end of the year to install the locks.
The center has also pushed for oversight to continue until the county fully staffs all shifts at the jail.
“Bringing people back at this time, when the jail’s locks aren’t working and the jail is running without enough officers, threatens the safety of everybody,” said Mary Sidney Kelly of the Southern Center.
If Adger’s assertion comes true, that inmates will soon be sleeping on the floors of their cells, Shoob is unlikely to release the county from oversight. In 2011, Shoob threatened to jail the entire Fulton County Commission because he was frustrated that inmates were sleeping on floors and the commissioners were not making serious efforts to buy extra space.
Bringing back the prisoners is more than a problem of numbers. Judges have ordered that 200 prisoners be separated because of gang rivalries.
Adger said he is notifying the judges that he will no longer be able to keep certain inmates separate by sending them to other jails.
“We’re benefiting (now) from low population numbers that (usually) occur between October and February,” Adger said. “Usually by March the numbers go up, and by summer we’ll be over 2,500 inmates and we will have nowhere to put those inmates.”
In voting to halt the outsourcing of inmates, a move made as part of adopting a 2013 budget, commissioners reasoned that taxpayers shouldn’t bear that expense when the main facility has empty beds. Last year, the county spent $4.1 million to house inmates elsewhere.
On Wednesday, there were 2,278 inmates in Fulton’s system, including 278 in other jails.