Judge rejects petition to stop Fulton inmates from being transferred out of state. But there's a caveat

The Fulton County Sheriff's Office said Atlanta police are investigating, Thursday, April 4, 2024 after a man being held at the county jail, which is under federal investigation, was stabbed to death by another detainee. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office is back to the drawing board after a recent ruling concluded that it is illegal to move inmates out of state to relieve jail overcrowding.

The plan called for sending up to 1,000 inmates from the Fulton County Jail to either a private prison in Mississippi or an immigration detention center in south Georgia.

But in September, Atlanta Judicial Circuit Public Defender Maurice Kenner filed an emergency petition to stop the transfer.

“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 at a Fulton County Board of Commissioners meeting that same month.

“They’re in danger just drinking the water that will be piped in from Jackson.”

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee rejected the petition last week but said Georgia law prohibits the move anyway. McAfee says the statute only allows transfers due to unsafe conditions to the “nearest county” with a secure jail.

Kenner could not be reached for comment.

However, the Georgia Public Defender Council said in a statement that the ruling is still a win, because it prevents any out-of-state transfers. The council reportedly represents 85% of all people charged with crimes in Georgia.

“We are very pleased the court firmly established inmates in the Fulton jail cannot be transferred out of state,” it said.

“Though we were not granted a writ of mandamus, we are proud to prevent the men, women and children at the Fulton jail from being disappeared into a private prison in Mississippi. We will not stop fighting for our clients, their safety and their rights.”

Sheriff Pat Labat has said surrounding counties have stopped offering additional beds until he can provide more staff. The sheriff’s office has already transferred approximately 400 people to the Atlanta City Detention Center and sent hundreds of others to facilities in Cobb, Oconee and Forsyth counties.

The sheriff’s office has also held several hiring events this year and is offering a signing bonus of up to $10,500 to hire detention officers, deputy sheriffs and a chief jailer.

Fulton County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Natalie Ammons said the agency was pleased with McAfee’s ruling.

“We will continue to explore and implement visionary measures to reduce the jail population by outsourcing inmates within the state of Georgia,” Ammons said.

“Creating safer conditions by relieving overcrowding within the Rice Street jail remains a top priority. Throughout this process, several options have been explored to include outsourcing inmates to facilities in and out of state. Had the public defender’s office contacted the sheriff’s office to discuss the viability of moves being considered, they would have been advised that no out-of-state move was underway nor was it imminent.”

According to Ammons, the jail population at 901 Rice Street hit a low of 1,996 inmates this week. That’s down from 2,944 inmates in February.

She also said there’s currently “a record low of 25 detainees on portable sleeping devices.”

Ten people have died while in custody so far this year, and there is an ongoing investigation by both the U.S. Department of Justice and a Georgia Senate panel into poor and dangerous conditions at the Fulton County Jail.

The Georgia Senate panel is set to hold its first public meeting at the capitol Thursday, Nov. 2.

Meantime, Labat said the sheriff’s office remains committed to improving the safety of the people under its care.

“I am optimistic that we can move forward in true partnership between my office and the public defender’s office to provide effective service to the inmates in our custody regardless of where they are physically housed,” Labat said.