Sep 21, 2023 - News

Fulton sheriff wants to move some inmates to private prisons

Fulton County Jail

The Fulton County Jail. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Fulton County sheriff Pat Labat wants to alleviate overcrowding at the county jail by sending some inmates to private prisons in south Georgia and Mississippi.

Driving the news: The Fulton County Board of Commissioners got a first look Wednesday at Labat's proposal to house pre-trial detainees at two locations: the D. Ray James Correctional Facility in Folkston, and the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi.

  • Located in Charlton County, Folkston is about 300 miles from Atlanta.
  • Tutwiler is nearly 400 miles away in northwest Mississippi.

Why it matters: The jail earlier this month recorded its 10th death of 2023.

  • Labat, who has been lobbying the commission to build a larger facility, has said the crowded conditions and "crumbling walls" at the jail have contributed to the current situation.
  • However, many community activists say a larger facility isn't the answer, and detainees being unable to afford bond and not facing indictments for months contribute to the lack of space.
  • The Department of Justice is currently investigating the death of LaShawn Thompson, a detainee with mental illness whose body was found covered in bug bites inside a cell last September.

Details: Amelia Joiner, general counsel for the sheriff's office, told commissioners during Wednesday's meeting that the prison in Folkston, which is run by GEO Group, Inc., can take up to 1,000 inmates and provide the necessary staffing to accommodate the new detainees.

  • The cost can range between $2.5 million and $3.5 million per month, she said.
  • The Mississippi prison, which is operated by CoreCivic and can only accept up to 720 detainees, would charge Fulton County between $75 and $80 per diem – and an additional $7,000 per trip to the jail.

What they're saying: Fulton County Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. said while he doesn't like the idea of sending detainees out of state, he supports Labat's proposal because it "would be completely irresponsible for me to not allocate [the] budget that would allow people to be moved out of the jail where people are dying almost every day."

By the numbers: As of Wednesday, Labat said the Fulton County Sheriff's Office had a total of 3,398 inmates and 2,391 of them are at Rice Street, which has an "operational capacity" of 2,254.

The other side: Several people also spoke in opposition to the proposal to transfer the detainees.

  • "It is an ongoing conversation that we have with them for months," she said. "We have to build trust with them. They have to know that we're for them and we're advocating for them. We cannot do that … by phoning in."

Threat level: Kenneth Perry Jr., a Fulton County Jail detainee who has been housed for 16 months, was introduced by the sheriff to discuss the conditions at the facility.

  • Perry said he and other detainees are subjected to violent attacks by other inmates, and have to live with mold, crumbling infrastructure, and overcrowded conditions.

Commissioners Bob Ellis and Khadijah Abdur-Rahman accused the sheriff of using the detainee as a "prop."

  • Ellis, who represents parts of North Fulton County, said the sheriff's requests for money without providing detailed information beforehand and creating a "staged presentation" were an "abuse of power."
  • "It sends the wrong message to the constituents and it sends the wrong message to us," Abdur-Rahman said, adding she knows that wasn't Labat's intention.
  • "That is disheartening. That is dehumanizing, and you could have gotten your point across … without that."

What we're watching: The request could come up for additional discussion or a vote as early as the commission's meeting on Oct. 4.

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