GOP state senators train sights on review of Fulton County jail notorious for inmate deaths

A Georgia Senate panel is set to launch the second outside government investigation into the dangerous conditions of a Fulton County Jail that Sheriff Patrick Labat has labeled a humanitarian crisis.  

Several Republican senators flanked Lt. Gov. Burt Jones on Thursday as he announced a Senate public safety subcommittee is set to hold its first meeting on Nov. 2 to discuss overcrowding in an Atlanta jail and the deaths of inmates at the complex. The Senate inquiry follows a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation initiated in July into conditions at the Fulton jail.

As of this year, there have been 10 inmates who have died in custody at the west Atlanta Rice Street jail, which opened in 1989 and was designed for 1,600 inmates but currently has more than 2,900 people incarcerated.

Sen. Randy Robertson, chairman of the Senate public safety subcommittee, said that the committee members are well aware of the concerns about the jail environment and will conduct a thorough investigation of jail management, safety and security, as well as funding.

“We’ve already started over the past few weeks gathering data and information on this issue and I feel very confident that we’ll do a professional, detailed investigation into the operation surrounding the Fulton County facility,” the Cataula Republican said.

A proposed state law Robertson sponsored during the 2023 legislative session would remove some of the discretion judges have to spare people jail time if they can’t afford bail.

Chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee John Albers on Thursday emphasized the importance of protecting the rights of jail inmates who have been arrested but not convicted of the crime that are being detained for.

Labat has referred to the conditions inside the jail as a “humanitarian crisis” and advocated for a new facility to be built with state-of-the-art technology.

Fulton County Commission is considering solutions that include building a new jail complex with an estimated price tag of $1.7 billion. 

In 2020, the Fulton County Commission declined to spend $21 million in federal funds on plans to expand the jail by 120 beds and upgrade health care facilities. 

Due to overcrowding, the sheriff’s office announced in April plans to relocate 600 inmates to other county correctional facilities for about $40,000 per day.

Labat said that he requested the justice department look into systemic problems at the jail in September 2022. He said that the sheriff’s office will implement protocols to better protect all staff members and inmates. 

“I have publicly, privately, and repeatedly raised concerns about the dangerous overcrowding, dilapidated infrastructure and critical staffing shortages at the jail,” Labat said in a statement after the DOJ investigation announcement. “The best possible outcome of the report from the Department of Justice is that it will confirm the findings of the jail feasibility study completed in March of 2023 – that the Rice Street jail is not viable and a replacement jail is needed.”

At Thursday’s press conference, Republican lawmakers insisted that their inquiry isn’t partisan.

Jones is among the the critics of the jail’s overpopulation who argue that the issue is worsened by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ failure to prosecute several hundred cases on time. 

Willis, a Democrat, has drawn the ire of Republican state senators after her decision to pursue a felony racketeering case against Donald Trump and 18 of his allies on charges of illegally attempting to overturn the 2020 election.

Norcross freshman Sen. Shawn Still has been charged in the case for his role in acting as a false GOP elector in 2020, and a special prosecutor is being asked to review whether Butts County Republican Jones’ involvement in the elector scheme warrants criminal prosecution.

Jones said Thursday that the committee will also examine how police officers and their commanding officers are handling street crime.

“We’re not coming at this from an adversarial standpoint,” he said. “We’re coming at it as a body that wants to help have solutions to this problem and this issue that continues to grow.”

High rate of inmate, staff deaths in jails, prisons

Atlanta Magazine profiled the jail’s extensive problems in a July 15 article that highlighted inadequate staffing, rogue correctional officers, disrepair and inmates dealing with drug and mental health problems.

There have been prolonged periods when daily stabbings have been reported inside the jail.

Dangerous conditions at the Fulton County Jail have been exposed in recent years. It is one of several county jails and state prisons that are facilities with problems so dire they’ve resulted in the deaths of inmates and correctional staff employees.

The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department announced in September 2021 that it would investigate conditions inside Georgia’s 34 state prisons following at least 26 inmate deaths in 2020.

According to the state Department of Corrections, Robert Clark, 42, died last month after being attacked by an inmate carrying a homemade weapon in Glenville’s Smith State Prison. This year, at least a half dozen inmates or employees have died at the prison located 65 miles west of Savannah. 

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.

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