Georgia state Senate to start its own inquiry of troubled Fulton County jail


ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia state Senate committee says it will start its own investigation of jail conditions in the state's most populous county, three months after the U.S. Justice Department unveiled its own inquiry of Fulton County jail conditions.

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

“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, told The Associated Press on Wednesday he would appoint a subcommittee with hearings to begin in November.

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.

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 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 pursuing 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 handing 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.