What you need to know about the Atlanta city jail, decarceration, and the prison industrial complex

This article was published on April 20, 2021.

ATLANTA — On Mon., April 19, Atlanta City Council was flooded with over six hours of public comment calls from constituents. A majority were calling about the same thing: the fate of the Atlanta City Detention Center, which is also commonly referred to as ACDC or simply the city jail. The demands of the calls were split, reflective of the divide within the city: activists and organizers who have long demanded that city leaders close the jail and repurpose into a center of equity and wellness, and others who are now demanding the jail stay open and be sold to the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office as a solution to overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail on Rice Street.

Many may already be familiar with the Communities Over Cages campaign (also known as the #CloseTheJail campaign) that gained steam in 2018 when Keisha Lance Bottoms became mayor. But the history of the city jail, of course, goes beyond that. To fully understand the debacle surrounding the jail and why many are opposing its ongoing maintenance, we should consider its history, its relevance to justice and racial equity in Atlanta, and our country’s ongoing mass incarceration crisis.

ACDC was established in preparation for the 1996 Olympics hosted in the city, and its primary purpose was to lock up those who were experiencing houselessness at the time. The city jail exists in addition to the Fulton County and DeKalb County jails, which hold people accused of misdemeanors and felonies. According to Women on the Rise, a primary social justice organization at the forefront of the #CloseTheJail mobilization, operating the city jail has cost the city up to $32 million per year. This, they explain, “robs our communities of resources that should be reinvested in programs that actually make our city safe and healthier for us all.” The organization adds that the jail currently holds people only for traffic and city ordinance violations; moreover, 90% of those detained are Black. Organizers have worked for years to ensure the city closes ACDC and instead opens the Center for Wellness, Equity, and Freedom, which “would provide much needed services for people who need them.”

Atlanta City Council’s full council meeting agenda for April 19 included a vote on two resolutions: one that would pave the way to sell or lease ACDC to Fulton County so that the county can use the building to expand the jail (21-R-3259), and another that, according to Women on the Rise, would open the door for rolling back important bail reform measures (21-R-3261). During yesterday’s session, the bail bill, 21-R-3261, was passed unanimously while the jail expansion deal, 21-R-3259, was tabled.

The conversation surrounding the city jail has ebbed and flowed in many forms over the years, from the peak of the #CloseTheJailATL campaign in 2018, to Mayor Bottoms signing legislation authorizing the closure of the jail in 2019, to the city\’s delayed actions in actually closing the jail. Although the city modified the proposed city budget for fiscal year 2021 last year to cut $18 million in spending to the jail, its presence remains and continues to cost millions in taxpayer dollars. More recently, the conversation has expanded to include a new proposal, which would essentially hand the city jail over to Fulton County. This shift has moved public pressure’s focus from Bottoms to two new key players: councilmember Michael Julian Bond and newly-elected Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat.

On March 1, council members Bond, Dustin Hillis, and J.P. Matzikgeit introduced resolution 21-R-3212, which sought to “help to establish a framework to assist the Fulton County Sheriff with severe overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail.” The resolution is currently being held in the Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee, meaning it has not come up for a vote. The bill was pending along with 21-R-3213, which was essentially the reverse and known as the “SAFE Plan” by organizers at Women on the Rise. The 21-R-3213 paper was introduced by councilmembers Carla Smith and Amir Farokhi, and would accept and adopt Mayor Bottoms’ justice reform plan “to accomplish the ultimate closure of the Atlanta City Detention Center within the next 15 months.” Both bills were held in committee on March 22 with the explicit condition they be brought back before the public safety committee on April 26.

On March 15, Bond re-introduced his previous paper held, just under a different title, 21-R-3259. The 21-R-3259 paper is identical to the preceding paper that failed to move in committee, except in the fact it is sponsored by Bond alone, rather than along with Hillis and Matzikgeit. That resolution came up for a vote on March 22, and the resolution passed out of the public safety committee to the full council in a 4-3 vote, with Bond, Hillis, Andrea Boone, and Cleta Winslow voting in favor and Joyce Shepherd, Smith, and Farokhi voting in opposition. The council then voted to table the resolution in an 11-3 vote with Bond, Boone, and Winslow opposing during the April 19 full council meeting.

Both Bond and Labat say that Fulton County needs to use the city jail to stop overcrowding and inhumane conditions at the Fulton County Jail, while organizers and activists point out that locking more people up isn’t a solution to public safety issues in the city. And they have a point: there has been no causal evidence or data that supports the idea that more policing and more prisons make our communities safer. Bond’s paper itself actually makes valid points as to why the jail should be closed and repurposed as a wellness center, rather than yet another iteration of mass incarceration. The paper notes that the ACDC typically houses 150 people at a time in a 1,300 capacity facility, as well as the fact that Fulton County Jail detainees are currently subjected to rather deplorable conditions like being forced to sleep in “boats” on the floor due to lack of bed space.

According to a previous conversation with organizers at the Southern Center for Human Rights, Fulton County Jail has already overflowed into an annex at the South Fulton jail, and two jails are already being used to address overflow. SCHR also stated they are in ongoing litigation with the South Fulton jail with concerns as to how they treat women, particularly with women experiencing illnesses. As SCHR explained, while the South Fulton jail annex was created to catch overflow, it never addressed deplorable conditions. These insufferable conditions are also not unique to Fulton County Jail, as more recent reports have uncovered inhumane conditions at Lee Arrendale State Prison and Irwin County Detention Center. Now, Atlanta constituents find themselves in a repeat situation.

Bond has taken to tough-on-crime rhetoric as well as co-opting language from organizers against deplorable conditions in jail and prison systems as a means to justify this deal that insists more jails will solve poor jail conditions, even though they haven’t in Atlanta in the past. In spearheading this resolution to turn ACDC into an extension of Fulton County Jail to solve an “overcrowding problem” and what he calls a “human crisis at Rice Street,” Bond contradicts himself. He expresses concerns for detainees sleeping on the jail’s floor, but is charging a legislation that would prevent people who are being held simply for being in poverty from being released and able to return to their own beds or shelters.

Bond’s resolution is actually proposing more of the prison industrial complex, which is simply defined as viewing more incarceration and policing as solutions to our communities’ economic, social, and political problems. The answer to overcrowded prisons isn’t more prison space. It’s decarceration, which is one step of many to address the systemic root causes of Atlanta’s public safety issues. Although Bond’s paper claims that city council and leadership have addressed these issues, that leaves much to be desired

To summarize our last year’s worth of reporting, Atlanta City Council and the mayor did nothing in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks’ police murders except increase police spending; help expand police powers as they continuously brutalized and mass arrested peaceful protesters; increase surveillance in the already 10th most surveilled city in the world; veto the city’s #8Can’tWait police reform legislation; tank the Rayshard Brooks Bill, which would have allocated funds from the city’s general fund to help fund community programs; sabotage bills that would have created systems of accountability for police officers; criminalize the “water boys,” who are young, entrepreneurial Black men and boys who took to selling water to help themselves survive the current economic crisis; and crack down on street racing, unnecessarily criminalizing yet another activity that seemed to mainly upset the city’s wealthiest constituents.

We can expect councilmembers and city leadership to continue to throw around tough-on-crime rhetoric while parroting off Atlanta’s latest crime statistics. It is, after all, an election year, and tough-on-crime platforms have historically worked for both Democrats and Republicans. However, it’s time to recognize that more policing and more prisons have never resulted in less crime and safer communities. If they did, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, and eight people wouldn’t have died needlessly in three Atlanta spas in the metro area. And although he’s been loud about Atlanta’s increased crime rates, Councilmember Bond has oddly been silent since the Atlanta spa shootings, according to local organizers and activists.

When it comes to homicides, which were on the rise last year, Atlanta politicians speak of it as if it occurred in a vacuum. Atlanta was not unique in its uptick in homicides last year. The increase in homicide was a trend we saw nationwide, resulting in a historic murder spike in 2020. Moreover, data shows the contributing factors to the spike were the pandemic, police violence, and increased gun sales.

If billions in spending on policing, surveillance, and jails isn’t helping create safe communities, that means it’s not working. And as the past two weeks have shown, police seem to only bring more violence, more pain, and more trauma to local communities. Last week, Georgia police killed two people within 24 hours; one of whom was Matthew Zadok Williams, a 35-year-old man who was shot and killed while he was experiencing a mental health crisis. He laid dead in his home for about an hour and a half before he was found, according to police scanners. His family wasn’t notified for a full 24 hours.

Additionally, in Atlanta, it’s reasonable to suggest increased criminalization of activities also contributes to increases in crime rates. Street racing didn’t need to be criminalized to the extent that it was, nor did police need to have their powers expanded to allow police chases, which are extremely dangerous and have killed civilians. Street racing is a long pastime in Atlanta and other cities, which can be dangerous, but if properly regulated and given an appropriate amount of space, is safe. While the city council could have explored other options and worked with community members engaging in the activity to make it safe, they bent to the will of angry Buckhead constituents threatening to take their money out of the city instead. Moreover, the city’s crackdown on the water boys last year was, eerily, not too dissimilar from Gov. Brian Kemp’s “anti-gang activity bill,” which sought to criminalize teenage Black boys. The bill passed in the state House in March 2020, but fortunately never passed in the state Senate. 

Lastly, an increased police presence itself contributes to upticks in crime rates, as police are incentivized to ticket people to make quotas as implemented in their departments. It is also known that increased policing occurs in communities of color at much greater intensity, frequency, and duration compared to white neighborhoods. In fact, last year, Mother Jones featured one Atlanta cop’s story as to how he and fellow officers were used and employed to further the city’s gentrification efforts by criminalizing and targeting low-income Black neighborhoods and their residents.

To bring this back to the jail, the state is incentivized to keep as many people as it can incarcerated, as it helps to fund the state and make it profitable through offender- and taxpayer-funded institutions. It’s important to note that corporations also benefit and play a major role in the prison industrial complex, taking advantage of cheap labor in state and private prisons to enhance their production, increase revenue, and lower overhead. And as many residents have come to understand, Atlanta’s political and economic decisions are more informed by the needs of corporations and Fortune 500 companies than those of their constituents. While local jails aren’t often the center of conversations regarding the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration, they still play a critical role as “incarceration’s front door” and have a far greater impact than is ordinarily suggested.

When it comes to Atlanta’s crime rates and public safety concerns, along with its ongoing police brutality issues, passing the buck to Fulton County to lock up more people without addressing root causes, essentially footing the bill to city taxpayers, isn’t only not a solution at all—it’s rather a dangerous and costly way to simply expand the problem. Furthering mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex has, as we have all seen, dangerous effects as it validates and emboldens a militarized and deadly police force. In the U.S., police have been responsible for more than three deaths a day since the first day of the Derek Chauvin trail. Further, the conditions in the jails are dangerous themselves, with detainees regularly reporting inhumane conditions that often result in serious health care issues. In terms of cost, selling or leasing ACDC to Fulton County would mean locking more people up, in turn costing the city more money.

Moreover, according to organizers, the Fulton County Jail has been considered to have inhumane conditions for decades. As Women on the Rise explain, “Expanding the jail won’t fix these issues. Depopulating it will.” The idea of depopulating the jail, of course, will not fly with many constituents in Atlanta’s wealthier neighborhoods, who have called into city council meetings exclaiming that “crime has gotten out of hand,” saying we need “people put in jail and know they will be there a while.” 

However, depopulating, or decarceration, is a completely viable solution to several of Atlanta’s greatest issues, especially for the taxpayer. A good portion of taxpayer dollars are currently going to fund an under-qualified police department and housing majority nonviolent offenders who could instead be receiving care from community programs or contributing to society at large, rather than occupying the supposed “adequate bed space” ACDC might offer.

The taxpayer investment in jails brings them and their communities absolutely nothing, except perhaps an illusion of safety that doesn’t exist as long as the current system does, with our current police force, lack of gun reform laws, and lack of community resources. Rather, the investment in mass incarceration only continues to make some rich people richer, without bringing any economic benefits to the communities the institutions reside in.

Decarceration is the most reasonable and logical way to move forward to address the negative impacts we are all experiencing as a result of over-policing, increased criminalization, increased surveillance, increased mass incarceration, and the prison industrial complex. We can begin by simply decarcerating those who are nonviolent offenders and those who are locked up for no reason other than the fact that they are poor. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 102,000 of Georgia’s residents are locked up in various kinds of facilities, with 39,000 in local jails and Black people making up the majority of the state prison and jail population. Additionally, pre-trial policies have driven recent jail growth in Georgia and the state’s incarceration rates stand out internationally, even outranking the U.S. as a whole.

Currently, the U.S. locks up more people per capita than any other nation, at the staggering rate of 698 per 100,000 residents. According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s national database, nearly 1.3 million people are locked up in state prisons and 631,000 in local jails. Of the local jail population, 74% of people held in jails are not convicted of any crime. This means a majority of those sitting in local jails are there awaiting trial, many of them because they could not afford to pay bail. The median bail amount for felonies is $10,000, which represents eight months of local income for a typical person detained because they can’t pay bail. Of those not convicted, locked up, and awaiting trial, 149,000 are there for allegedly committing violent crimes. The others are there due to property-related allegations, drug-related allegations, or by public order.

City council members will soon return to consider the bills regarding the city jail’s fate, either spiraling the city down with more of the same, or pivoting in a direction towards transformative justice.

According to Women on the Rise, Atlanta city council members are in the following standing:

  • In support of closing the jail, but still need to be pushed for their full confidence in a no vote: Matt Westmoreland (Post 2), Andre Dickens (Post 3), Antonio Brown (District 3), Carla Smith (District 1 and co-sponsor of Bottoms’ jail closure bill; voted no on the jail expansion bill and yes on the bail reform rollback bill), Amir Farokhi (District 2 and co-sponsor of Bottoms’ jail closure bill), Natalyn Archibong (District 5), and Jennifer Ide (District 6)
  • Those who oppose closing the jail: Michael Julian Bond (Post 1), Dustin Hillis (District 9), J.P. Matzigkeit (District 8), Howard Shook (District 7), and Andrea Boone (District 10)
  • On the fence: Joyce Sheperd (District 12), Cleta Winslow (District 4), and Marci Collier Overstreet (District 11)

While jails and increased policing have not proven to be effective in keeping communities safe, more opportunities, resources, and community programs could. As material conditions for the working class and those in poverty improve, fewer people will resort to things our society considers criminal in order to survive. We know what safe communities look like: it’s neighborhoods with greater resources and community programs, not police and jailing systems. Defunding the police, reallocating funds to community programs, and taking necessary steps to decarcerate our state prison and jail systems are the necessary and vital steps the city of Atlanta needs to address its massive racial wealth inequality gap, which is currently the highest in the country, and the issues of police violence. City council also needs to urge state legislators and Georgia congressmen Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossof to urgently move on their support for gun reform laws if they truly wish to see a decrease in homicides in Atlanta, Georgia, and the country.

There are many steps the city and state government can take to help organizers and community builders create a safer and more equitable world. Multiple alternatives that have been well-researched, documented, and implemented successfully in other cities facing the same issues have been suggested, pushed, and demanded by the people of Atlanta. Expanding jails, caging people, and increasing police are not part of that vision. Legislators can either get on board, or they can get out of their seat.

Atlanta’s municipal elections, which includes all seats for city council and the mayor’s office, take place this November. The Georgia General Assembly elections take place in the fall of 2022. Stay tuned for more resources and coverage from us ahead of these elections. Subscribe to our newsletter here to stay connected.

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