The Atlanta City Detention Center.

Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chair Rob Pitts is threatening legal action to allow immediate transfer of hundreds of county jail inmates to the Atlanta City Detention Center to alleviate chronic overcrowding. 

The threat follows the Atlanta City Council’s decision on Oct. 3 to keep in place a mandate that a comprehensive analysis of Fulton’s jail population be completed before any county inmates can be transferred to the city’s detention center. 

The analysis, expected to take up to 90 days, was a last-minute amendment to legislation approved by the City Council in August to lease up to 700 beds at the detention center to the county. The detention center now sits mostly empty, in large part because of the city’s Pre Arrest Diversion Services program.

Ninety days or more is too long to wait, Pitts said in Oct. 6 news release. He said he has contacted the Fulton County attorney “to explore what legal options the county has if the stalemate continues.”

Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chair Rob Pitts.

A comment from city officials about the possible legal action was not immediately returned.

Fulton County’s Board of Commissioners approved the lease agreement days after the Atlanta City Council, including the amendment for the study by the Justice Policy Board. The review will look at why inmates are booked, the time inmates spend at the jail and how their cases are resolved. 

But now Pitts, who voted against the lease agreement but wants the county to purchase the city jail  and Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat are pushing hard against the study and demanding transfers start immediately. They say severe overcrowding at Fulton’s Rice Street jail is a “crisis” and putting lives at risk for those incarcerated and for jail staff.

“Give us the damn keys to the [Atlanta] jail,” Pitts said in the news release. 

“We’re fiddling, while Rome burns,” he said. “We are in a state of emergency at the Fulton County jail. Hundreds of inmates are sleeping on the floor, they are making homemade weapons, people are dying. And 80% of the inmates in our jail are from Atlanta yet some lawmakers are ignoring this crisis.”

Pitts said ongoing, comprehensive data is available to the City Council. Sheriff Pat Labat has outlined the seriousness of this crisis, and we cannot wait a minute longer,” he said.

Pitts and Labat addressed the City Council at its Oct. 3 meeting, urging the council to remove the requirement for the jail population study. They say the study and transfers can take place at the same time. 

Labat told the council that relief is needed immediately because more than 3,500 individuals are incarcerated at the Fulton jail with 473 of them “sleeping on the floor.”

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat urged the City Council at its Oct. 3 meeting to allow the immediate transfer of Fulton inmates to the Atlanta City Detention Center. (Screenshot)

The jail population analysis required by the City Council is not expected to be completed until Nov. 18, Labat said. The current overcrowding is creating a dangerous environment for inmates and jail staff, he said, and called the city’s comprehensive study “a stall tactic.”

Councilmember Jason Dozier, who introduced the amendment to require the jail population analysis as part of the lease agreement, said his intention was not to stall inmate transfers. He said the raw data — and not the sheriff’s analysis of the data — has been requested by the public for years. The data would lift any clouds over who is being locked up at the jail, he said.

“It’s not to delay the process, it is not to create any … smoke and mirrors or to derail anything,” Dozier said. “It is so that we have a better understanding of what we’re truly working with. As our 40th President Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust, but verify.’”

Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari said the analysis is needed because current “inhumane conditions” at Fulton’s jails could be a liability to the city. 

“There is no humane way to jail a person and in order to ensure that we are doing our job as the city to these people who are in jail, data will always prevail,” Bakhtiari said. 

“We need to understand why people are in there,” they said. “And I will not in the blink of an eye damn people’s lives to be in jail without questioning it. These are lives. These are human lives we’re talking about.”

More than 60 civil rights organizations signed a letter sent to Mayor Andre Dickens and the City Council asking they not make a final decision on leasing the Atlanta detention center to Fulton County until they consider the results of the 90-day jail population review.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.