New $2B Fulton County Jail nixed, commissioners approve renovation plan

The Fulton County Jail will get an overhaul, not a completely new facility. The Fulton County Board of Commissioners voted on Wednesday afternoon to nix plans for a new $2 billion facility, opting instead to renovate the existing Rice Street Jail as well as the South Annex Jail. 

In a 4-3 vote, the board chose to spend up to $300 million to overhaul the existing infrastructure, focusing on urgent needs. The renovation would be rolled out in phases, with the first phase being the inspection of architectural, mechanical, electrical, and safety systems. 

"We’re told that the improvements that we plan to make will have a life span of some, 15, 20 to even 25 years," said Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts. "So, it’s the right decision." 

One of the challenges during the renovation period would be the temporary relocation of some inmates and how it would be handled. Commissioners brought up this issue during Wednesday’s meeting. 

Pitts says there needs to be a continued focus on inmate processing to prevent overcrowding. "We have a number of inmates who have been put out on ankle bracelets so they’re no longer there," said Pitts, about recent inmate reduction at the jail. "And there are people who were in the jail that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. So, there’s a way to do it without spending $2 billion of taxpayer money." 

Renovations could begin as early as late 2025 or early 2026 and could last up to 10 years. 

Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat, who has long been an advocate for a replacement facility, released a statement on Thursday reading:

"We stand by the findings of the jail feasibility study commissioned and funded by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners: the Rice Street Jail needs to be replaced. The decades-long challenges plaguing the jail are worsening day by day. 

"Sheriff Labat has been very transparent about the critical need for better conditions at the jail. We are housing detainees accused of the most violent offenses in the county. Because of the failing physical plant, detainees are using parts of the building to fashion makeshift weapons that pose a danger to each other and to our team."

He plans to hold a press conference on Friday.

The vote ends a two-year push to build a new facility. 

Fulton County Commissioners: How they voted 

Here is how each commissioner voted on Wednesday: 

  • Robert L. Pitt – Yes
  • Bridget Thorne - Yes
  • Bob Ellis – Yes
  • Dana Barrett - No
  • Natalie Hall – No
  • Marvin S. Arrington, Jr. - No
  • Khadijah Abdur-Rahman – Yes

Department of Justice probe 

The vote also comes just days shy of a year since the Department of Justice launched a probe into the deplorable conditions of the jail. A report stemming from that investigation has not yet been released. It was something dissenting commissioners noted, pointing out the report could provide a federal directive in opposition to the proposal. 

The DOJ launched an investigation on July 13, 2023, to determine whether the jail has violated the constitutional rights of its inmates. It follows several deaths which drew national attention and outrage. It was not immediately clear when that report would be released. 

Families of deceased inmates and advocacy groups have long called for federal intervention, arguing that local efforts to address the problems have been insufficient. The DOJ's probe will include a comprehensive review of jail policies, practices, and conditions, and it will seek to identify systemic issues contributing to the violations. Fulton County officials, for their part, have expressed their willingness to cooperate fully with federal authorities. 

A state Senate subcommittee also launched its own investigation in fall 2024. Subcommittee Chair Sen. Randy Robertson has stated that "funding a replacement jail would be among his list of recommendations when the committee releases its report."

Rice Street jail conditions 

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Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat took FOX 5 on a tour of the deplorable conditions he says he is trying to fix at the county jail on April 27, 2023. (FOX 5)

Since the start of 2022, at least 30 deaths have been reported at the Rice Street facility. Many of these deaths were attributed to a mix of violence, medical neglect, and poor living conditions, with some cases highlighting severe lapses in basic healthcare and supervision.  

Overcrowding remains one of the most significant issues, with the facility often housing far more inmates than its intended capacity. This overcrowding has led to heightened tensions between inmates and staff, contributing to frequent violence and unrest. Inmates are often forced to sleep on the floor due to a lack of available beds, and personal space is virtually nonexistent, exacerbating stress and conflict within the population. 

The sheriff would enter into an agreement with the Atlanta Department of Corrections to help house some of the inmates.

The hygiene and sanitation standards at Fulton County Jail have also been widely criticized. Reports frequently highlight inadequate access to basic necessities such as clean water, functioning toilets, and showers. Inmates have reported infestations of pests like rats and cockroaches, which thrive in unsanitary conditions. These issues contribute to a high incidence of infectious diseases, putting both inmates and staff at risk. The lack of proper medical care and attention further exacerbates health issues, leading to severe consequences for those who are ill or injured.