Fulton County took a leap toward ending federal oversight of its jail Wednesday. The County Commission awarded a $4.8 million contract to replace almost 1,400 faulty door locks that inmates have been able to open at will to assault guards and other inmates.
The county still has a ways to go before it retakes total control of the lockup, perhaps as far away as 2015. Installation will take about a year, the chief jailer estimates, and a federal monitor has said he wants to see how the locks work for at least six months before declaring the problem solved.
Mary Sidney Kelly, an investigator for the Southern Center for Human Rights, called the progress great news. The center filed a 2004 lawsuit on inmates’ behalf over dirty, dangerous and overcrowded conditions that led to a federal judge taking over supervision of the jail for the past seven years under a consent order.
“I’m very surprised that it’s taken this long to accomplish this,” she said of fixing locks. “This is a basic function of a jail, keeping inmates secure in their cells.”
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office must figure out where to house about 400 inmates while the job is being done, since cellblocks have to be emptied while locks are being switched out. The county won’t be getting any help from the nearby Atlanta jail, even though it has about 700 empty beds.
Fulton Chief Jailer Mark Adger said talks ended abruptly earlier this month when his counterpart with the city told him that, because of the public tiff between Mayor Kasim Reed and the county, Atlanta wouldn’t be entertaining any offers. Patrick Labat, who heads Atlanta’s jail, said it wasn’t because of politics, but rather that Fulton County never submitted an offer in writing, and now the city is mulling other options to house inmates for other law enforcement agencies.
Reed, frustrated by a spate of high-profile crimes, went on the offensive against Fulton’s justice system, saying it runs a “turnstile jail” and that its judges treat criminals “with more respect than they treat law-abiding citizens.” Still, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the county couldn’t use his jail’s space unless it paid a fair price.
“I’m not going to have people in Atlanta be double-taxed, which is what we are,” Reed said earlier this month. “We don’t get anything of value from Fulton County government.”
Complying with the consent order is costing county taxpayers almost $150 million, including interest on loans that funded extensive renovations and more than $53 million spent renting beds in other jails to stay below an inmate cap set at 2,500.
Fixing the locks, a problem the commission put off for years, is one of the last terms of the order to be met. In January, Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob denied the county’s request to be freed from the order early, telling it to ask again after the locks are replaced and the jail has enough guards to cover all shifts.
The most recent monitor’s report said the county has also fallen out of compliance because, ever since Fulton cut funds for sending inmates to other jails, female inmates have been sleeping on floors in plastic cradles. In March, he said, 366 women slept on floors.
Adger said women would go to the Union City jail, which is closing, if the county can negotiate to take it over.
Wednesday’s vote gave the contract to Alabama-based Cornerstone Detention Products. Willo Products, also out of Alabama, will get about $2.5 million of the sum for supplying most of the equipment.
Commission Chairman John Eaves has made ending federal oversight the cornerstone of his second term in office. In December, he struggled to find four votes to approve going $5 million in debt to fix locks, mainly because one supporter, Commissioner Tom Lowe, missed a meeting.
“I am pleased that the board has approved this important investment in the security of our jail,” Eaves said in a written statement. “The jail locks are an important step in addressing the terms of the consent order, and in protecting the safety of jail employees, contractors, visitors and the inmates themselves.”
For more than six years, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered the difficulties Fulton County has faced in complying with a federal consent order to improve conditions at the county’s jail. Reporters have used public records to calculate the total cost of compliance to taxpayers — nearly $150 million. One of the last required renovations is replacing nearly 1,400 locks. Today’s story reports that the county has awarded a contract for the job and describes challenges ahead.