Fulton considers jail renovation instead of $2 billion replacement

The Fulton County Commission ordered an assessment if the Fulton County Jail can be renovated instead of building a new jail.

A few days after the Fulton County Commission rejected a request to pursue a sales tax to fund a new jail, Commissioner Bob Ellis said the county knows the facility can be upgraded.

Commissioner Dana Barrett proposed the Safe and Pre-Trial Jail Act during the commission’s June 5 meeting. It was a request to direct the county manager to pursue a sales tax to fund a capital project to build a new jail. Her motion included an evaluation of renovating the existing facility and taking a phased approach to building a new jail. Only Barrett and Commission Marvin Arrington voted for the push for a sales tax.

“I don’t believe that renovating the existing jail is a feasible option. The walls are literally crumbling, and people are taking metal out of the walls,” Arrington said. “And let me say that again, the walls are literally crumbling, and inmates are taking metal out of the wall and using that metal to assault other inmates, and in one case, an inmate climbed through a wall to attack another inmate.”

In 2023 a firm that has done work across the country introduced a plan to go through the jail and renovate separate housing units for $1.2 million at a time. Materials are used to make the walls non-penetrable, Ellis told Rough Draft. This work shows that renovation is possible, he said.

The jail, which was built in the 1990s, will need a new roof, plumbing, and elevator work.

Ellis noted that the jail has 1,000 fewer inmates than it did last year. “This idea that it’s still overcrowded and all that, that’s not accurate. I mean, it’s below its functional capacity at the moment,” he said.

The county also has access to many more beds, including 700 beds leased at the Atlanta City Detention Center. Only half of those were being used. The Sheriff’s Department handles the detention work for those beds. The county can outsource up to 500 inmates to other counties as they have space available, Ellis said. Approximately 260 inmates were outsourced, he said. Other county facilities also have beds available.

Another thing that the commissioner said affects the jail population is the average length of stay in the jail, which is about 60 days. Before 2020, the average jail stay was closer to 30 days. If those numbers return to the historic average, that will significantly impact the jail population.

“I think the longer these people are there, the more likely they are able to do things inside that jail that are more unsavory,” Ellis said.

He revisited the jail vote the commission had previously approved, which was to direct the county manager to provide the commission with what funds would be available over a multi-year period that could be used for the jail without raising the millage rate. A request for proposals (RFP) would be designed to include a refurbishment assessment for the jail starting with the needs and the costs to complete it.

Another part of the RFP would be to look at the best use of funds to construct other facilities. The contractor would also create a long-term master plan for other potential expansions of jail facilities.

Commissioner Bridget Thorne supported the motion, saying renovation of the current jail was never considered because the Sheriff’s Department said it was obsolete.

County Manager Dick Anderson said that an Association County Commissioners of Georgia assessment on getting a sales tax vote approved by state legislators said it is unlikely. It would require Atlanta to give up part of its existing sales tax to stay within the legislative cap on sales taxes of 9 percent.

Barrett’s sales tax motion failed. The motion by Ellis to proceed with an RFP on jail renovations, funding availability, and facility needs was approved.

The Prison Policy Initiative argued against a new jail in a report released on June 12. Prison reform advocates said the focus on resources should be to keep people out of jail. Prison reform advocates oppose proposed new Fulton County jail – Rough Draft Atlanta

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