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Georgia Senate commissions hearing amidst Fulton jail death crisis

ACPC Staff Report

A Georgia Senate panel investigating the crisis of skyrocketing deaths, overcrowding, and violence inside Fulton County’s pretrial detention system held its first public hearing on Thursday. 

Senate Republicans announced the special study subcommittee on Fulton’s jails in October after a tenth person died in Sheriff Patrick “Pat” Labat’s custody in just nine months. Senate Public Safety Chair John Albers (R-56), who represents part of Fulton County in Roswell, said during a press conference that he believed it was time for change at the jail. “We can’t stand idly by when people are dying and justice is not being adjudicated in a timely manner.” Sen. Randy Robertson (R-29), chair of the new study committee, described the intent of this and future hearings as a “meticulous” “educational process” that will result in a formal report with recommendations for possible solutions at an undetermined date. 

Sheriff Labat was traveling with other sheriffs and did not attend the hearing. In his place, Amelia Joyner, Labat’s chief counsel, told the subcommittee only money would solve the crisis. “We need a new building. Fast. We need a lot more staff. We need to be properly funded.” While the sheriff’s office did not offer a dollar amount to the subcommittee, Labat’s prior requests to the Fulton County Commission total more than $2 billion to construct a new, 4,500-bed jail, plus eight-figure increases to the current Sheriff’s Office budget of $142 million. 

“Sometimes funding can be contentious.” 

Joyner testified the department’s current $142 million budget leaves the jail generally underfunded. “We operate at a deficit,” she explained in response to a senator’s observation that the jail’s current expenses for medical care far exceed the $36 million available. Joyner’s testimony came less than a day after Labat acknowledged millions in improper expenditures from Fulton County’s inmate welfare fund. The expenditures went to employee items such as  uniforms, vehicles, gift cards, flowers, and even a DJ, instead of the wellness of  incarcerated individuals.. 

The revelation followed a request for more detailed financial documentation from Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis, who also represents Roswell. Ellis and Labat had a testy, heated exchange over jail spending during a recent Commission hearing where Labat sought millions more from county taxpayers to outsource pretrial incarceration of people arrested inside Fulton to one of three privately-run for-profit jails in Mississippi and south Georgia. The Commission did not approve Labat’s outsourcing request. 

The state legislative panel could represent an alternative source of funding for Labat’s jail campaign, allowing the Sheriff’s office to circumvent the Fulton County Commission’s oversight and secure recommendations for funding from senators representing rural counties outside the Metro Atlanta area. All of the study committee members are white, while nearly 90% of people incarcerated in Fulton County’s jails are Black. 

Fulton County Commission Chair Rob Pitts has consistently expressed skepticism about pouring more than $2 billion in county resources for more incarceration. “A brand new jail is not going to solve the problem if you don’t have good management in that jail.” 

“Nobody wants to grow up and be a corrections officer.”

Even if Labat gets a “a new building—fast”, it’s unclear how he would staff it. Jails face a nationwide staffing crisis, according to Tate  McCotter, executive director for the National Institute for Jail Operations . Difficulties in hiring and retaining qualified candidates have most jails operating on a skeleton staff, he said “barebones minimum” that jailors cannot do forever. “Somebody’s going to get hurt,” McCotter warned senators.

Understaffing plagues Fulton County’s jail system, too, according to Joyner. Even with starting pay for detention officers in the state at $54,000 and a $10,500 sign-on bonus, Fulton County Sheriff’s Office still has a 36% attrition rate. It’s an extremely difficult job, according to everyone on the panel and the study committee, and some states have even lowered the age of qualification to be detention officers to 18 to find candidates. “I don’t even know if I’d recommend to my own children that they go into this profession,” confided McCotter.

Joyner explained that Labat’s office addresses staffing shortages by shifting other Fulton County law enforcement and civilian personnel to jail-related duties, hiring an outside contractor to supply 42 workers who staff the jail’s observation towers, and outsourcing pretrial detained people to four other Georgia facilities in Cobb, Gwinnett, Oconee, and the City of Atlanta.

The sheriff also appears to have taken the heed of abolitionist’s advice and engaged in decarceration as a means of reducing the demand for jail staffers.

According to Joyner, 2,915 people lived locked inside Fulton County’s jail system on Thursday—down from a high of more than 3500 in recent months. This included more than 1900 people locked inside the County’s main jail at Rice Street, which was built to house 1125. 19 were sleeping on the floor atop plastic cots, called “boats,” which is down from more than 300 earlier this year. By reviewing dockets proactively and reaching out to prosecutors and courts, the sheriff’s office helped secure consent bonds to get many people released who would otherwise have remained locked up. Still, Joyner said, “we’re severely overcrowded.” 

“This is real-world liability.” 

Locking more people than contemplated in spaces with fewer people than needed to care for them has severe consequences for human lives, and high costs for taxpayers, witnesses told the Senators. 

“Jails have become dumping grounds for the mentally ill,” McCotter said. 60-80% of people in pretrial detention have a mental health diagnosis, according to Georgia Sheriffs Association (GSA) Executive Director Terry Norris and Chairman Robertson – himself a former jailer. Fulton County’s jail is no exception. An estimated 1,800 of roughly 2900  people in the jail (62%) have a mental health diagnosis, according to Joyner. About 1,000 of those have a serious mental illness. With an average of just below five urgent mental health contacts a day and 72 acute mental health admissions, Joyner said, “Fulton County Jail is very much a de facto mental health facility.” 

But as Bill Hallsworth, a jail and court services professional with the GSA told the panel, detention officers are not mental health workers. Norris concurred, saying, “most sheriffs don’t have a robust mental health response.” The cost of mental health treatment at the Fulton County Jail in its $35 million contract for medical and mental health services is “almost your entire operating budget,” observed one senator. “That’s correct,” Joyner replied.

Acknowledging severe overcrowding and admitting the sheriff does not have enough people to provide optimal care and supervision inside Fulton’s jails, Joyner told the panel 10 humans have died in 2023. With more than 900 assaults, 337 fights, 293 stabbings, and a fire so far this year, the suffering wrought by the crisis in Fulton County’s jail appears to touch all who are held inside.

This state of affairs could have serious budgetary implications for Fulton County’s taxpayers. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division opened a separate inquiry in July after Fulton County made national headlines for the death of LaShawn Thompson. The 29 year-old family man died on the floor of a cell alone at Rice Street jail, eaten alive by bedbugs, in September 2022. 

Thompson family attorney Benjamin Crump publicly accused Labat and Fulton County Commissioners of having “blood on [their] hands.” Labat sought and received the resignations of the jail’s top brass in April, and Fulton County Commissioners reached a $4M out-of-court settlement with Thompson’s family. Since then, at least six more people have died on Labat’s watch, raising the possibility of substantial liability for Fulton County, and even a federal monitoring agreement. 

The “magic wand” solution Fulton County’s jailers offered the Georgia Senate—billions for a new jail, tens of millions more for additional staff and other expenditures—will not materialize overnight. The Senate study committee will hold more hearings, likely turning its focus toward delays with prosecutors in filing charges, and with courts in adjudicating them in the months to come. 

In the meantime, thousands of people—roughly a third of whom suffer from severe mental illness, and all of whom are legally presumed innocent until proven guilty—will continue waiting for their day in court, hoping they live to see it.

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