ATLANTA — Community activists lost round one Monday night in a long-running, contentious battle over what to do with the old—and mostly unused--Atlanta City Detention Center, downtown.
The city council voted to let the Fulton County Sheriff put county inmates in the old city jail to ease overcrowding at the county jail.
But opponents, instead, want the city to convert the old jail into a social-services center that the city badly needs.
Next is round two on Wednesday, when the Fulton County Commission is scheduled to take up the deal and vote on it.
After hours of debate Monday, the city council voted 10-4 to let the county house about 700 county inmates at the city jail facility for four years.
“We are ashamed that the city voted this legislation up,” said Devin Barrington-Ward Monday night.
Barrington-Ward was speaking for the group called Communities Over Cages ATL, which supports a different plan to relieve overcrowding at the Fulton County jail, and a different plan for the old city jail--a plan once endorsed by Mayor Andre Dickens. They want the city to convert the city jail, which is mostly empty, to a community center that would offer badly-needed social services to people struggling for help that jails can’t give them.
Mayor Dickens told the council on Aug. 8 that plan will have to wait for about four years so the county can use the facility, first, for its inmates.
“In four years, once we cut off this process of having inmates in ACDC (Atlanta Community Detention Center), then we turn ourselves into what the next future is, which is not with us being in the jailing business,” Dickens said.
However, activists on Monday did help convince the City Council to approve six amendments to the deal.
One of the amendments puts the final say in the hands of a special city-county panel that would have 90 days to review the deal and collect data, and then decide if it is a good deal for the city, the county and the inmates. In addition, they'll decide any details of the deal need to be changed--or if it’s a bad deal, which would kill it.
“So that way.” Barrington-Ward said, “we can make sure that our people are not being harmed in the haste to try and solve this problem that has been going on for far too long.”
But there can be no deal at all unless the Fulton County Commission approves some version of a plan, and that vote, again, is scheduled for Wednesday.
The Fulton County Sherriff provided a statement on Tuesday praising the decision:
"I applaud Mayor Dickens and members of the Atlanta City Council for their commitment to implementing practical solutions to address dangerous overcrowding and to humanely house detainees in our care.
Completing this transition will be a critical step toward immediately improving safety for detainees as well as staff. It will also allow the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office to restart the PAT3 re-entry program which has provided employment opportunities for non-violent detainees who are re-entering our communities.
Sheriff Labat said “I understand and appreciate all of the complicated factors that led to this difficult decision but it’s absolutely the right decision in order to provide a safer environment for detainees as well as staff — and to provide better pathways to rehabilitation.”
This humanitarian effort allows us to treat those persons who are already incarcerated more humanely. Meanwhile, we will work in collaboration with the courts, the District Attorney’s Office and mental health experts to identify those persons who qualify for alternative programming and re-entry services."