Fulton County Sheriff draws stiff criticism over proposal to move inmates across state lines

Fulton County commissioners spent several hours on Wednesday discussing a proposal to move inmates out of the overcrowded county jail to facilities hundreds of miles away. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

A group of public defenders are urging county officials to reconsider a proposal to move inmates out of the overcrowded Fulton County Jail to facilities hundreds of miles away.

Under the proposal, up to 1,000 incarcerated individuals would be transferred to either the D. Ray James Correctional Facility in South Georgia or the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi.

But, Maurice Kenner, circuit public defender for the Atlanta Judicial Circuit, said state law requires a sheriff with a jail that has become unsafe to relocate inmates in county jails nearby, adding that moving them across state lines would not only deprive them of their right to counsel, but it would place an undue burden on their families.

“What the sheriff wants to do is to move presumptively innocent clients, mostly of color 400 miles across state lines into the state of Mississippi, into a private prison, and tell us that they are going to be safe,” Kenner said. “They’re in danger just drinking the water that will be piped in from Jackson.”

Fulton County commissioners spent several hours discussing the proposal on Wednesday.

“We are in a crisis,” Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman said. “I am sad today that in the civil rights cradle, we’re talking about shipping individuals to Mississippi. Really? So I say today, let’s stop playing with people’s lives. People are dying.”

The debate became heated when Vice Chair Bob Ellis accused Sheriff Pat Labat of mismanaging his office’s funds. According to Ellis, the agency recently bought 169 vehicles for $7 million, 12 Harley-Davidsons for $225,000, and two electric Mustangs for $139,000.

“I’m not sure what the hell that had to do with servicing our jail,” Ellis said.

Labat fought back.

“I’m not here to play with you,” Labat said. “I don’t even play the radio. So you can figure this out or you can run for sheriff. Try that one out, because I’m here to tell you quite simply the women and men of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office are doing yeoman’s work.”

After calling Ellis’ statements “disingenuous,” Labat said Fulton County would not be the first county in the state to transfer inmates to other facilities. Harris County, he said, currently has 10,500 people in detention, with 1,200 of them across state lines in Louisiana. Meanwhile, Gwinnett County has also started housing about 400 individuals in Irwin County – three hours away.

“This is not germane to Fulton County,” Labat said.

General counsel Amelia Joiner said Labat has reached out to every sheriff in the state seeking extra beds, but they are either completely full or they require the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office to provide its own staff.

The same problem exists in facilities like the Cobb County Jail and Atlanta City Detention Center, where the county pays $40,000 per day for bed space but does not have the necessary staff to work the units.

According to Joiner, it would now cost $166 a day per inmate to house them at the facility in South Georgia. That’s about $40 million a year.

Meanwhile, CoreCivic, the for-profit prison company in Mississippi, is bidding at $75 to $80 a day per prisoner, plus about $7,000 for ramping up the program and transportation costs.

The first option includes medical care and other services, while the latter does not.

At the end of his remarks, Labat’s deputies walked into the assembly hall with four inmates. One of them described what he alleges it’s like to be inside the Fulton County Jail. The presentation drew stiff criticism.

“Those people are not props,” Abdu-Rahman said, questioning what they might have been promised for their appearance.

Ellis agreed.

“This is about the third time that the sheriff’s office has come down here with not giving us information ahead of time to ask us for a boatload of money with limited detail and create sort of a staged presentation associated with it,” Ellis said. “Not acceptable.”

No vote was taken on Wednesday.