A severely overcrowded Fulton County jail has become so dilapidated that inmates are able to create makeshift weapons by reaching into walls and removing broken floors, electrical covers and broken pipes, according to Fulton County Sheriff’s Office officials.
A state Senate public safety subcommittee heard testimony Thursday from Fulton County Sheriff’s Office supervisors about a series of knife attacks on inmates and a cache of weapons confiscated from inmates, providing a glimpse into harrowing conditions at a western jail from Atlanta, which is constantly overcrowded. understaffed and underfunded.
Representatives from the State Association of Sheriffs and a statewide prison organization also reported on the challenges local law enforcement agencies across the country face in operating prisons safely and effectively.
So far this year, there have been 1,293 reported stabbings in Fulton’s prisons, nearly 1,200 stabbings discovered, 922 attacks by inmates on other inmates and 68 incidents in which staff were assaulted. As of Wednesday, the Fulton Main Jail housed 1,928 inmates, but only 1,875 beds were available because 308 beds could not be used due to structural problems with the building, according to the sheriff’s office.
Currently, the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for approximately 2,900 inmates taken into custody by Fulton County officials, police departments from more than a dozen municipalities, MARTA, campus police and state and federal law enforcement agencies.
The Fulton Department of Corrections is one of the largest correctional facilities in the Southeast and consists of the Rice Street Jail and three annex buildings.
“Each of the nearly 3,000 inmates we have in our custody has their own personal, legal, family, loved one, medical and mental health burdens. needs, educational requirements and limitations,” said Amelia Joiner, Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat’s chief attorney. “And unfortunately many have their own criminal connections or gang affiliations. The Fulton County Jail is also a city that never sleeps. The doors are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Operating a facility of this size is a herculean task.”
Thursday’s legislative hearing was the first in a series of expected Senate meetings Committee to Investigate Conditions at the jail at 901 Rice Street in Fulton and at several other detention centers managed by the Fulton Sheriff’s Office. The panel will also examine how cases are prosecuted and the impact of crime in Atlanta and surrounding communities.
The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating Fulton’s main prison, which was designed to house up to 1,600 inmates when it opened in 1989. Ten inmate deaths, a wave of violence, deteriorating building conditions and not enough beds for inmates to sleep have been reported so far this year. The prison gained national notoriety in August as the site of the surrender of former President Donald Trump’s private attorney Rudy Giuliani and the other 17 original defendants in the Fulton County racketeering case over interference in Georgia’s 2020 election.
State lawmakers are expected to resume the fight in 2024 over conflicting crime-reduction policies such as mandatory bail and harsher punishments GOP leaders’ tough stance on crime. Democratic lawmakers continue to support the strategies of former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which argues that rehabilitation services, not prison sentences, are the best way to reduce recidivism.
Concerns about staffing and inmates’ mental health
Sheriff’s offices across the country are struggling to recruit and retain correctional officers for a stressful job that often hires people with no law enforcement experience, said Tate McCotter, executive director of the National Institute for Jail Operations.
McCotter said most local jails operate on skeleton staff, which is the bare minimum staffing required to keep a jail open 24 hours a day.
Experts also noted Thursday how the dynamics of housing inmates in close quarters have changed due to heightened public health concerns caused by the pandemic and a growing backlog of cases, leading to more people being locked up , if they couldn’t afford to pay a deposit.
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said Georgia has seen an increase in the number of parolees being rearrested on unrelated charges over the past decade.
“Many people should be on probation, but there are many people who simply cannot function in free society on probation,” he said.
Norris also said prisons too often function more like state prisons.
“A lot of the problems we have in county jails have to do with these inmates who shouldn’t be in the county jail,” he said. “They are convicted as criminals in county jails and sent to prison by judges. Or they are offenders who have been held in the county jail for so long before trial that there is not much time left for their sentence.”
County jails are often converted into de facto mental health facilities because sheriff’s offices must hold anyone arrested for criminal offenses, said Bill Hallsworth, director of jail and court services for the sheriff’s association.
McCottor cited national statistics that show an estimated seven in 10 people incarcerated in prison have a mental illness and about 38% of inmates suffer from serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
The Fulton prison currently houses about 1,800 inmates who are taking psychotropic medications for mental illness.
Joiner said the Fulton Sheriff’s Office has been underfunded by the Fulton County Commission, which budgeted $64.6 million for jail operations in 2023, including $28 million for staffing. One provider provided $35 million in medical and mental health services, while another $6 million annually is spent on prison sentences Building maintenance and repairs and specialty cleaning services.
An additional $7 million is spent annually on food for 9,000 meals provided daily at the prison.
“The financial impact of overcrowding has led to increases in medical costs and food costs,” Joiner said. “We had to sign a contract and hire additional security guards. Our staff need to spend more of their free time supporting the prison and ensuring it is as safe as possible.
“The sheriff’s office is generally underfunded. And sometimes getting funding can be controversial,” Joiner said.
Because of overcrowding, the sheriff’s office announced plans in April to move 600 inmates to other county correctional facilities at a cost of about $40,000 a day.
The Fulton County Commission is considering solutions that include building a new prison complex with an estimated cost of $1.7 billion.
Joiner said that since Labat began his term as sheriff in January 2021, he has taken a number of measures to improve staff retention and recruiting efforts for the corrections department to $60,000 and detention officers to $54,000, along with a sign-on bonus for new employees.
A number of initiatives have been taken to reduce overcrowding in Fulton’s prisons, including the creation of an inmate advocacy unit that has reviewed 10,980 cases since June. The unit’s efforts to date have resulted in the successful release of 259 inmates while scheduling more than 180 court hearings.
The Sheriff’s Office has also worked with the Fulton Attorney General and the District Attorney’s Office to negotiate agreements between prosecutors and defendants regarding bail amounts and other conditions for release from jail.
Roswell Republican Sen. John Albers said the committee will continue to examine various factors, such as staffing levels at the county’s detention centers.
“One of the takeaways from this meeting is that we’re trying to put together these different data points about what the (prison) capacity is, how many people are there, how long they’ve been (incarcerated), and the distribution of mental illness are.” he said.
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