Fulton County’s new sheriff has announced he wants to buy Atlanta’s mostly empty jail and begin housing more inmates there.
It’s a proposal that would upend promises by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and a notable departure from the momentum that’s been building for years to close Atlanta’s City Detention Center.
“This is an opportunity for the city to get out of the jail business and the sheriff’s office to do what we do,” Sheriff Patrick Labat, who ran Atlanta’s jail for the last ten years, told WABE.
He was a member of a task force Mayor Bottoms asked to come up with recommendations on the future of the jail.
“I went to every task force meeting. I wanted to hear for myself what the opportunities were,” said Labat.
He said he just never agreed with the plans to redesign the downtown Atlanta facility into a community center.
Labat believes his idea is an option for Mayor Bottoms to fulfill her promise of cutting Atlanta’s ties with the downtown jail and help ease overcrowding in the nearby Fulton County jail. Poor conditions at the county’s west side jail put the facility under federal oversight for more than a decade.
“We’re in desperate need of better facilities, we’re in desperate need of really a better opportunity to treat our citizens better regardless to what you’re charged with, with you still deserve to be treated like a human,” said Labat.
Labat said he knows his plan is likely to face backlash from organizers who have worked for more than two years to shut down and transform Atlanta’s jail.
“But it’s not my position to be liked. My position is to do what’s best for Fulton County,” said Labat.
In recent years, inmate advocates have pushed for city policy changes like cutting ties with federal immigration officials and bail reform, which cut the inmate population at Atlanta’s jail down to dozens on an average day. It can house 1,300.
Labat’s announcement comes as many of these longtime advocates are poised for Atlanta officials to offer a plan for the facility based on the report by the mayor’s task force. None of the task force’s recommendations included continuing to house inmates there.
In a statement, Xochitl Bervera of the Racial Justice Action Center called Labat’s proposal “a disappointment” and said an expansion plan is both wasteful and out of step with national trends to reduce jail populations.
“There are experts on hand ready to help the sheriff reduce the Fulton county jail population quickly and safely in order to improve conditions and the process of justice,” said Bervera.
“Labat’s proposal is so out of step you have to wonder whether this is just his ego talking. He was sore at losing what he considered ‘his jail,’ and he just wants it back.”
For his part, Sheriff Labat maintains a bottom line that crime “is out of control.”
While 2020 did see a significant spike in Atlanta homicides, there’s no evidence of a longer-term trend toward higher crime in Atlanta. Overall, violent crime has been way down across the country since the 1990s. Besides a small bump in car thefts this year, reports of burglary, theft and rape were all down in Atlanta.
“Crime is a sense of perception. It depends on where you sit in the conversation. If you’re a victim, crime is up. So we need to be in the environment of making sure people feel safe, where they work, live and play,” said Labat.
Sheriff Labat said he’s sent his proposal to the mayor and city council members.