Both inside and out, the Fulton County Jail — a seven-story brick-and-stucco fortress tucked away on Atlanta's west side — resembles most metropolitan detention facilities. Its labyrinthine cinder block corridors, while painted the sick color of spoiled milk, smell of some combination of bleach and baby powder. The intake area, complete with snack machines, banks of pay telephones and a terminal-like seating configuration, resembles an old Greyhound bus station.
The obvious difference, of course, is the row of holding cells along the room's periphery, where men — some seated, hugging their knees, others standing with their faces precariously close to the smudged, no doubt germ-ridden, Plexiglas — wait to be shuttled to whichever wing best fits their alleged crimes and circumstances. In the laundry, a few inmates work silently at unloading driers and stacking folded uniforms into neat piles. In general, the jail's various rooms and dormitories are as you'd imagine them: dismal, but tidy and relatively efficient.
Still, Mary Sidney Kelly can't resist but verbalize her relief as to the facility's condition. "This is just so much better than it used to be," she says repeatedly during a routine visit last week.
As a paralegal with the Southern Center for Human Rights and one of the investigators responsible for that organization's 2004 lawsuit over jail conditions, Kelly sees the facility through a different lens than the average outsider. She recalls hallways that reeked of human waste, faulty plumbing that allowed sewage to seep up through grates in the laundry room floor, and dormitories that were dangerously overcrowded.
"It's a relief that we can walk into the facility, the temperature is controlled, the smell is of cleaning products, not bodily odor or sewage, and that you don't hear the noise that hundreds of extra people make," Kelly explains of her relative delight. "That's the way jails are supposed to operate."
The improvements haven't come easily, nor have they reached fruition. The lawsuit prompted by the center's investigation resulted in the signing of a consent order by U.S. District Court Judge Marvin H. Shoob in 2005. The order contains more than 200 mandates — everything from staffing levels to population limits to the availability of natural light in inmate quarters. The order also mandates that the Southern Center — as legal representative to all current and future inmates of the Fulton County Jail — be allowed special access to monitor conditions, as Kelly does on a quarterly basis.
A number of the mandates have since been met, including more than $5 million in repairs to the plumbing and electrical systems. The county also hired a maintenance company to remain on-site at all times to ensure lights and machinery are always functional. But the area in which the jail continues to struggle to remain compliant with the court order is population.
There are indications throughout the facility of an ongoing struggle to accommodate a large, ever-fluctuating population of inmates. Dennis Nelson, a law-enforcement veteran who's been chief jailer since February, points to a stack of plastic cots — "boats" in jail lingo — in one of the dormitories. When no more beds are available, inmates sleep on boats in a common area.
A roundish man with a cool demeanor that belies the stress inherent to his job (just three days after Kelly's inspection, a corrections officer suffered a superficial wound when he was stabbed by an inmate), Nelson explains there are limitations to what he and his staff can do.
"We really don't have much control over the population," Nelson says. "I think I heard the DA's office has [a backlog of] something like 4,000 cases." Delays in the processing of cases would, in fact, appear to be part of the issue — as of last Sunday, 876 people in the Fulton County Jail had yet to be indicted or officially charged.
To keep population down in the long term, Nelson and his staff developed programs to prevent recidivism: GED classes, as well as janitorial and culinary arts training. As more inmates graduate from the programs, Nelson plans to monitor their success.
But to comply with the court-mandated 2,500-inmate limit in the short term, the jail administration is forced to send inmates to other jails as far away as South Georgia — a service that comes at a cost. According to a daily update on jail demographics, on Aug. 8 more than 300 Fulton County inmates were doing time or awaiting court in other facilities. Based on the current number of inmates being outsourced, Kelly guesses the county could be spending about $6 million a year.
While estimates for building a new facility or an addition to the current one hover in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the Fulton Commission sits on its hands about buying Atlanta's city jail, the Southern Center suggests finding alternatives to incarceration. Kelly proposes, for instance, that nonviolent parole violators be subject to house arrest rather than jail time, and that police take into consideration who they're arresting and to what end.
"There are 70 people in jail right now on criminal trespassing charges. I don't know what the facts are of their cases, but I know in having reviewed dozens of these over the years, a lot of these are homeless people," Kelly says. "There are other ways to handle that situation."
Whether solving the jail's population woes would also result in a lifting of the court order remains to be seen. Nelson recognizes that there are "many terms that have to be met and that have to continue to be met" before that happens. In the meantime, probably before Thanksgiving, Kelly will be back for another inspection.
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