The Road from Atlanta to Mississippi
Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat defends a plan to move inmates to a private prison out of state. There's a long list of people to blame for getting to this point.
It’s not like they don’t know what the problem is.
The Fulton County Commission walked through slide after slide analyzing the effectiveness of Project ORCA, a judicial process to clear the massive backlog of cases that are clogging the county courts and overcrowding the county jail.
ORCA isn’t working any more. The backlog was about 12,000 cases two years ago. It’s about 11,000 cases today. About 37 percent of inmates had not been indicted in April. It’s 35 percent now. 60 inmates have been in jail without being formally indicted — a necessary precursor to even starting the process of getting a day in court — for more than a year. Fewer trials will happen this year than in 2019, despite double-digit increases in funding for courts, the district attorney’s office and the sheriff.
“Everyone is pissed at the lack of progress,” said Commissioner Bob Ellis. “We designed this to prevent what we’re seeing here today. Instead, we have no measurable progress.”
Well, no progress, and 25 dead bodies in two years.
“We have had how many deaths in the jail and we’re still going back and forth,” Commissioner Khadijah Abdu-Rahman said. “In the civil rights cradle, we’re talking about shipping people to Mississippi. Let’s stop playing with people’s lives. People are dying.”
With eight dead since the middle of July, Sheriff Pat Labat has proposed a radical solution: shipping prisoners to a private prison in Mississippi, among other places. The suggestion alone has drawn extraordinary protest from the defense bar, which attended a Fulton County commission hearing today en masse.
Conditions leave public defenders in a hard spot. On the one hand, as Anthony Ragas said today, that the jail “is a living breathing and often dying 8th Amendment violation. It is cruel and very usual punishment.”
Commissioner Marvin Arrington noted that the commission pushed back against an earlier plan to move inmates to Irwin, Georgia. “I didn’t want to move people five hours away,” Arrington said. “And now we’re in a situation, where I have to vote for this contract. I can’t protect an inmate’s constitutional rights if they’re dead. I can’t keep them safe if we can’t keep them alive.”
But moving prisoners far from Fulton County creates practical problems for defending them in court. Speaker after speaker noted how it would compromise their ability to communicate with a client, to develop evidence, and to manage cases.
State law requires a sheriff with a jail that has become unsafe, if relocating inmates, to do so in county jails nearby. “All I’m asking the sheriff to do is follow the law,” said Maurice Kenner, Circuit Public Defender for the Atlanta Judicial Circuit. “If he needs a copy of it, I will provide him one.”
Fulton County currently holds some prisoners in Cobb, Forsyth and Oconee counties, a Fulton County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said.
“Sheriff Labat sent a letter to the other 158 sheriffs in the state requesting assistance,” the spokeswoman said. “Due to staffing and physical/space constraints, very few counties were able to assist.”
I’m starting to make the rounds with sheriff’s offices in neighboring counties, to see what they told Fulton County. It’s hard to believe there’s no jail closer than Tallahatchie, Miss. that will take Fulton County prisoners.
Sheriff Pat Labat’s penchant for theatricality continued today, as he addressed the commission. At the end of his remarks, his deputies paraded four prisoners into the hearing room. One — who did not identify himself — described living in fear of being shanked, the mold on the walls and the problems of overcrowding.
Devin Barrington-Ward, a prison reform activist, was all but hopping up and down in the back of the room, livid at the apparent exploitation of a prisoner for political purposes. “They can’t get their day in court, but they can get in front of the commission,” he whispered.
The display colored the way the commission appraised Labat’s inmate plan.
“Those people are not props,” Abdu-Rahman said, describing it as dehumanizing and questioning what they might have been promised for their appearance.
“A staged presentation — that’s an abuse of power,” Ellis said. “We need hard data. Contracts. Not people paraded down here with the anecdotal.” Ellis noted how a $5 million emergency contract for wristband monitoring in the aftermath of a death last year in jail seems to have evaporated without effect, which led to a spirited back-and-forth with Labat about disingenuousness.
Prisoners sleeping on the floor make it impossible to wire the floors of the jail for the technology, Labat said. “As long as we have people sleeping in floor, the facility cannot be upgraded.”
The sheriff plainly acknowledges the problem in the jail, particularly with staffing. Labat described contracting for tower guards, getting a bit more than half of the 75 people he was expecting … and having to arrest two of them.
“That’s where we are with respect to hiring in a correctional environment.”
Other counties have some space for Fulton County prisoners, Labat said. But those county sheriffs demand that Fulton County provide staff to cover their transferred prisoners. If the county had the staff, it wouldn’t have a security problem requiring outside space in the first place.
Arrington pressed for numbers. The sheriff’s office general counsel eventually offered up a figure — $166 a day per prisoner for local beds, or about $40 million a year. (Note that the entire budget for the sheriff’s office is about $60 million a year.)
CoreCivic, the operator of the private prison in Mississippi, is bidding at $75-80 a day per prisoner, plus costs for ramping up the program and transportation costs, the sheriff’s office said.
The sheriff’s office has tried to reduce inmate headcount by reviewing cases itself, and by refusing to hold state prisoners for protracted periods before Fulton County court trials. But it’s picking at the edges of a larger problem.
“Systematically, the system is broken,” Labat said. “We had a person in our facility for 10 years just go to court. Charged with murder, but still. We’re stuck in the middle.”
It’s easy to dump on Labat for what’s happening in the jail. He won the election. On some level, no matter what, everything happening here is on him.
But the system is broken in a half a dozen ways, and as I observe the discussion today it’s evident that the people responsible for the other broken parts seem to be perfectly happy to see Labat tank the artillery fire without drawing attention to themselves.
Police departments across the county — not just Atlanta — regularly make arrests for relatively petty crimes to get disruptive people off the street or out of a neighborhood. They’re making arrests apace, even though there are diversion programs available, because police either do not believe those programs are effective or because those police are not being rewarded for their use. Something at APD is misaligned here: almost no one who can be diverted is actually being kept out of jail.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens could tell the cops to back off until the jail is sorted out. But Dickens has no political responsibility for the jail, so he has no political incentive to defy a legion of residents calling 911 and lighting up zone commanders to get dope boys and people experiencing mental illness off their sidewalks.
That said, a bit less than two thirds of the people in Fulton County Jail are being held on a felony charge.
Of the 3,300+ people in county custody, 1,300 have been denied bond, Labat said. County prosecutors and solicitors could be much less aggressive about pursuing bonds for some crimes. But Atlanta is coming off of a crime wave. Consider the political problem posed by a detainee who bonds out of jail after being charged with a violent felony, who goes on to kill someone. Of such things are social media outrage made. So, they look for high bonds for anyone who looks threatening.
Labat said it himself at a press availability after the hearing today. “If I’ve got 3,300 individuals charged with felonies, that means there’s the potential to have 3,300 victims. My goal as sheriff is to make sure we take care of victims as well.”
The court’s case throughput hasn’t meaningfully increased, despite adding four senior judges, hiring about 20 new defense attorneys for cases with client conflicts and holding hearings at the jail on Saturdays. The backlog is effectively unchanged.
Judge Ural Glanville, chief of Fulton County Superior Court, could declare the county jail out of constitutional order tomorrow, and order prisoners to be released in ascending order of seriousness. Glanville is an elected official, subject to the same political pressure any elected official might be. The headline would be “Judge Lets Dangerous Prisoners Roam Free.”
The state, seeing this mess, could offer additional resources to its largest and most economically-important county. Gov. Brian Kemp thought it appropriate to form a “crime suppression” unit in the Georgia State Patrol to augment the Atlanta Police Department. Funding and staffing the concomitant increase in demand for resources in the criminal justice system created downstream by that unit’s additional arrests apparently hasn’t occurred to anyone at the state level.
It takes an act of the legislature to create and fund more superior court judge positions in Fulton County. But lawmakers could do that in about six months. The state would also have to secure space to hold additional trials, and sheriff’s deputies, prosecutors and defense attorneys to staff those trials.
Republicans win elections by running against Atlanta-as-urban-hellscape. If they cared about the deaths of prisoners in the Fulton County jail, they could have helped solve this problem a year ago.