A day after a judge threatened to throw Fulton County commissioners in prison if they did not agree to buy Atlanta's jail, the city upped the price Friday, saying it is less eager to sell the facility.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob gave Fulton commissioners 60 days to enter into a binding contract with Atlanta to buy the city jail or face being sent to the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta for contempt. Shoob has been involved in overseeing the county's efforts to comply with a consent order requiring it to ease overcrowding and improve the conditions for inmates at the county jail.
Friday, Shoob did not appear open to Atlanta's decision to more than double the price, from about $40 million to $85 million.
“A price was agreed upon," Shoob told Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporting partner Channel 2 Action News, "and if they raise the price we’re going to take the steps necessary to protect the citizens of Fulton County.”
Atlanta COO Peter Aman, at a news briefing Friday, said the price went up for several reasons, most notably a different climate than the one that existed when the Atlanta City Council passed the final sales terms in May 2010. Aman said there are currently 400 detainees at the jail, and the operating costs have gone from $28 million a year to $24 million.
“We are less eager to dispose of the asset," Aman said. "We are much better at running the jail.”
But Aman said the higher costs also protect the city, which would lease 200 beds in the jail from Fulton under the terms of the sale. He said in the event that the jail faced the same overcrowding problems in the future, Atlanta might be forced to find other housing for its prisoners.
“Given all of that risk, we wanted to be compensated fairly,” Aman said.
Because of constant issues with overcrowding, Fulton is under extreme pressure to get a new jail. A lawsuit was filed in 2004 detailing dirty, dangerous and crowded conditions at the county jail on Rice Street in northwest Atlanta.
The county has struggled to meet the terms of the ensuing consent order. Inmates sleep on flooring surfaces even as hundreds are outsourced to rented beds in other counties and cities.
The AJC reported Thursday that in April, May and June, 3,406 inmates were forced to sleep on the floor, and in August 1,378 inmates did the same. The county jail’s population cap is 2,500. Last May, the Atlanta council, looking to get out of the jail business and hoping to improve the city's finances, offered its jail to Fulton for just under $40 million.
In an email, Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves, who is out of the country, said the county will continue to “exercise our due diligence in finding the most efficient and economical option to address the overcrowding issue of the Fulton County jail.”
Aman said the city believes the new price is fair, and he rejected a claim that Atlanta was price gouging.
“For someone to create that asset, it would take three-four years and cost $100 million,” Aman said. “This is free and clear, for less. Staffed and ready to go. This is not price gouging. We recognize that Fulton County is under pressure from the judge.”
Fulton County Commissioner Tom Lowe said the new price "is about twice what it's worth."
"If they want to get serious, we're ready to get serious," Lowe said. "I am not one bit worried about going to jail. We don’t have $85 million.”