May 8, 2024 - News

The Fulton sheriff race and the woeful county jail

A ballot being cast in a ballot box shaped like a jail cell

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Three candidates are challenging Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat in the May 21 primary. Top of mind: ending the deaths and deplorable state of the county's jail on Rice Street.

Why it matters: 13 inmates have died at Rice Street since 2023, including three this year. Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Atlanta) have asked the Department of Justice to make its investigation of the jail a "priority."

  • Conditions are so rough at the northwest Atlanta lock-up that inmates are using pieces of the building to create shanks, incumbent Sheriff Pat Labat has told media and elected officials.

Driving the news: Labat is facing three Democratic challengers, all of whom have worked at the jail.

  • Joyce Farmer, a 30-year veteran of the sheriff's office, said at a recent community forum that she'd segregate inmates with medical and mental issues in a separate division, 11 Alive reports.
  • Kirt Beasley, who worked under Labat's predecessor Ted Jackson, discussed a diversion center and working with the courts and prosecutors for some early release programs.
  • James "J.T." Brown, a private security firm CEO who served under six Fulton sheriffs starting in the mid-1980s, said the office could retain employees with better benefits, like child care.

Catch up quick: Labat, who took office in 2021, told a Georgia Senate committee Tuesday that he inherited a decrepit, outdated facility designed to house 1,125 individuals when it opened in the late 1980s.

  • Outsourcing inmates to other county jails and diversion programs have helped the jail do away with people sleeping on the floor in so-called "boats" and lowered the population to 1,731 inmates, he said. Regardless, the jail remains dangerous.
  • New hires will play a role but a new facility — estimates for which have neared $2 billion — is needed, Labat said.

Yes, but: Devin Franklin, the movement building and policy counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, told Axios a new jail with new programs "does not solve the issue of overcrowding."

  • "It only incentivizes [inmates'] continued pre-trial detention and de-incentives the ability of government officials to invest more substantively in helpful programs and services available to the community at large."

State of play: Early voting is underway and ends on May 17. If no candidate wins more than half the votes, a runoff will be held on June 18.

  • Charles Rambo, another former Fulton sheriff's department employee, qualified as a write-in candidate on the November ballot.

What's next: State Rep. Mesha Mainor (R-Atlanta) and James Woodall, the former president of the Georgia NAACP, are hosting a candidate debate on May 9 at 6:30pm at Lindsay Street Baptist Church and via Zoom.

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