Georgia Senate announces investigation into troubled Fulton County Jail

A Georgia state Senate committee says it will start its own investigation into the Fulton County Jail, three months after the U.S. Justice Department unveiled its own inquiry into the jail's conditions.

Republican state Sens. John Albers of Roswell and Randy Robertson of Cataula made the announcement in a Thursday news conference, accompanied by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones. 

"We've all watched with great concern the tragedy that continues to unfold at the Fulton County Jail," said Sen. Albers. 

Attorney Sara Eslami, Managing Partner of the Law Office of Sara Eslami, says the scrutiny is well deserved.  

"No human being should ever have to live in those conditions regardless of whether or not they have a pending charge or not," she said. 

"Now, we can’t solve all the problems that Fulton County may have, or any other county for that fact," Albers said. "However, we can go in there and hopefully get them on the right track."

Albers, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, said he would appoint a subcommittee with hearings to begin in November.

Eslami knows the jail well and says she has clients currently behind bars. She says she is usually their multiple times a month for nearly the last decade.  

"There's rodents, there's mice, there's rats," she said. "Anything you can think of is in that jail."  

The problems at the Rice Street lockup have not just grabbed the attention of federal investigators, but now also those who work under the Gold Dome. Thursday morning, several State Senators and the Lt. Governor announced the creation of a new subcommittee that will take a deep dive into the issues at the facility where 10 inmates have died this year alone. 

In a one-on-one interview after the announcement, State Senator Albers said answers are needed. 

"When something has happened that's not being addressed, and we're having constituents come to us who have either had direct impact or have lost loved ones in jail, and we don't see action, we have to step in," he said.

Sheriff Pat Labat has said the jail is not only overcrowded but falling apart. Calls for change ramped up after the death of inmate Lashawn Thompson whose body was found covered in insects. 

Members of the subcommittee toured the jail Wednesday and talked with the sheriff.  

"We're not coming to this from an adversarial standpoint," said Lt. Governor Burt Jones. "We're coming at it as a body that wants to help have solutions to this issue." 

The first public hearing will take place on November 2nd at 10 am at the Capitol. FOX 5 reached out to the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office about this, it said that it welcomes any assistance.  

Fulton County Jail's ongoing problems

Fulton County’s main jail, which opened in 1989 in a neighborhood west of downtown Atlanta, has been plagued by overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and violence. Six people have died in Fulton County custody since the end of July. Ten people have died in jail custody in 2023.

Calls for change started ramping up after the death of inmate Lashawn Thompson, whose body was found covered in insects. An independent autopsy done at his family’s request found he died from severe neglect. His family has since reached a settlement with the county.

Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat says the jail’s walls are crumbling. Last year, Labat’s deputies wheeled wheelbarrows of shanks pulled from jail walls into a county commission meeting to show how decayed conditions and violence feed each other.

In recent months, Labat has campaigned to build a new jail, which could cost $1.7 billion or more. Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts has said he wants to seek other solutions, in part because such an expensive undertaking would probably require a tax increase on Fulton County’s million-plus residents.

The main jail holds about 2,600 inmates on a typical day, even though it has only 2,254 beds in cells. The remaining inmates sleep in plastic bunks on the floor in common areas.

Fulton already pays to house some of its remaining 1,000 inmates outside the county, but Labat has sought proposals to ship some inmates to private prisons on Georgia’s southern border or in Mississippi.

Such a move would be expensive and leave inmates far from families and lawyers. Pitts wants to house more inmates in empty portions of Atlanta’s city jail, but the Fulton County sheriff has to provide the jailers and Labat says he doesn’t have the staff.

It’s not clear what state-level remedies lawmakers could come up with. Albers noted lawmakers could increase the number of judges in the county, which could allow more detainees to come to trial and leave the jail.

"This is something that needs to be addressed and it cannot wait," Albers said, saying officials need to seek short-term and long-term solutions.

Some Republicans have blamed Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis for overcrowding, suggesting she has diverted too many prosecutors to pursue a case that led to the indictments of former President Donald Trump and 18 others for conspiring to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.

Of 3,500 people jailed at the end of August, 35% had yet to be indicted and faced no other charges Critics of Willis suggest overcrowding results in part from the failure to indict and try suspects rapidly enough.

However, the jail has long been over its capacity and most Georgia counties saw a backlog of cases pile up when courts were restricting proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Willis in July dismissed criticism that Trump was keeping her office from handling other cases, saying "We can walk and chew gum at the same time" and noting that the murder rate in Atlanta has fallen significantly.

Albers dismissed the idea that the probe would be aimed at Willis, noting he had worked with her to toughen gang laws.

"I will work with anybody who wants to lock arms and fix a problem," Albers said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.