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Fulton jail lawsuit continues to cost taxpayers

Some say the Fulton County Jail on Rice Street has always been a problem — and an expensive one at that.

The $48 million jail opened almost 25 years ago and was to solve the issues that plagued the old jail, such as overcrowding and dangerous conditions.

But those problems remain today, critics say, despite the county being under a consent order that requires them to make significant renovations, limit the number of inmates and maintain an adequate staff.

Because there aren’t enough beds, some inmates sleep on the floor. They roam where they shouldn’t because faulty locks can’t hold them in their cells. And not enough detention workers are on duty at any given time to watch over them.

A federal judge has scheduled a hearing in early February in which the sheriff and the county must “show cause” why they should not be held in contempt.

“It’s just inexcusable that these problems are persisting this long after the county agreed to do something about them,” said Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which brought the 2004 lawsuit that led to the consent order two years later.

Lawyers for Sheriff Ted Jackson and for the county conceded in a mid-December court filings that the jail was out of compliance. But county says the sheriff is responsible for any failures in meeting the consent order, while the sheriff blames the county, saying the commission controls the funds.

Fulton “is not currently violating any provisions of the consent order,” the county’s lawyer wrote in a filing. “Fulton County has gone well beyond the mandates of the consent order to make certain that compliance is achieved.”.

The sheriff’s, the county said, has been given all the resources he needs to house inmates and staff the jail. A year ago, when the number of inmates in the jail dropped below the 2,500 population cap, the county cut off funds “outsourcing” inmates to beds in other jail. The chief jailer that he needed open beds to keep warring inmates apart, to keep men and women in separate cell blocks and clear sections of the jail while workers install new locks on cell doors.

Eventually, the county reversed itself and agreed pay for female inmates to be housed at the Union City Jail.

But still there aren’t enough beds to keep men from having to sleep on the floor.

The sheriff blames Fulton commissioners, writing in a court filing that its the county’s “obligation to budget sufficient funds to enable the sheriff to comply with all requirements set out in the consent decree.”

Jackson says the problems persist because it’s an unpopular expenditure.

So far, taxpayers have spent more than $200 million in the years since the order was signed to renovate the jail, to outsource inmates and to pay interest on the debt connected with fixing the building. On top of that, the county awarded a $4.8 million contract last summer to replace almost 1,400 faulty door locks that inmates have been able to pry open at will, a process that will take until summer most likely.

Jackson also said that the county’s cumbersome hiring process is partly the blame for the jail being chronically shorthanded.

The judge’s jail expert has recommended unsuccessfully many times that the county build a new jail that will be big enough for an inmate population expected to grow.

The Board of Commissioners, however, is considering renting beds in other counties again. The board is expected to decide in the coming weeks if the 2014 budget will include funds for that.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash has scheduled a hearing in February to determine if the county or the sheriff has violated the consent order.

Until then, many worry about what could happen.

“Everybody knows the jail is dangerous,” said Melanie Velez of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Some jail employees have written the Southern Center about their fears, a letter they did not sign. Velez said she has confirmed the letter did come from jail employees.

“It has reached a point of becoming so dangerous at that facility that we are fearful for both our lives and the lives of the inmates,” according to the letter to the Southern Center. “The Fulton County Jail is so terribly understaffed that they (inmates) are not safe and the officers are in constant fear for their lives.”

The current jail expert reported to Thrash — who recently took over the case from Senior Judge Marvin Shoob — that on any given day there are 100 to 200 inmates sleeping on the floor and that number totaled 7,236 inmates in one 30-day period.

“How can they (county officials and the sheriff) continue to sit back, knowing that (fights) are taking place because of unsatisfactory sleeping conditions and less than adequate food?” staffers said in the letter to the Southern Center. “It does not even seem to faze them when inmates and officers are both being serious hurt, fires are being set, gangs are still getting contraband into the jail.”

Jail expert Calvin Lightfoot said essentially the same thing when he appeared at a hearing to discuss the status of the case.

“The locks are being fixed, but it’s going to be a May or April (before they are all replaced),” Calvin Lightfoot told Thrash. “(Officer) rounds aren’t being made (to ensure inmates are in their cells and safe). The jail is very dangerous for both inmates and officers.”

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