“What you’ll see in these wheelbarrows are shanks. Right now, they total over 1,100 shanks,” said Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, who oversees the jail and has pushed for funding to replace it. “These are pieces of the building that have been ripped apart, fashioned into knives, fashioned into deadly weapons.”
Six inmates have died at the jail so far this year with few publicly available details other than that some were found unresponsive and rushed to a hospital before dying, according to local news reports.
“A lot of people can get lost inside these walls, and some never make it out alive, as we’ve seen recently,” said Marcus Coleman, an activist whose group Save OurSelves mentors youth in Black excellence.
He said it is a shame that the cradle of the modern American civil rights movement runs such a dilapidated jail. “Rice Street is a gladiator school for the youth,” he said.
Labat said Tuesday that “it is expected that all 19 defendants named in the indictment will be booked at the Rice Street Jail.” Labat and other authorities will have to coordinate with the Secret Service, who provide protection for Trump, and they could arrange for the former president to be processed elsewhere. The sheriff’s office did not respond to questions about such arrangements.
All signs indicated that, if Trump and others were to visit Rice Street, it would likely just be for them to be booked — a process that involves a medical exam, being fingerprinted and posing for a mug shot. It is not expected that any of the defendants would spend time in a holding cell or among the general detained population.
But the possibility of the high-profile visit has once again brought national attention to the troubled jail, located less than a mile from Atlanta’s hip West Midtown area — home to a duckpin bowling alley and an upscale steakhouse with $179.95 per ounce caviar on the menu.
Inside, the 2,500-bed jail appears well beyond its years. A grime seems to cover surfaces. Chipped-away paint does little to mask the stains and dark splotches that cover the walls. The flooring is worn and patchy. Meals of bologna sandwiches or chili are common.
The jail was at 120 percent capacity in April, according to a report from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. County officials blame the overcrowding on not having enough resources. Advocates for those detained say the jail is mismanaged and needs to be discarded.
In July, the Justice Department launched an investigation of the jail after a 35-year-old man was found slumped over in a cell in September. A detention officer found Lashawn Thompson’s body covered in lice and bed bugs in the jail’s mental health wing. Attorneys for Thompson’s family said Thompson was “eaten alive” by insects.
A report from the county’s medical examiner said the cause of death was undetermined, according to Thompson’s attorneys, but an independent autopsy reportedly paid for by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick concluded that Thompson died of neglect.
“It’s no secret that the dilapidated and rapidly eroding conditions of the current facility make it incredibly difficult to meet the goal of providing a clean, well-maintained and healthy environment for all inmates and staff,” Labat wrote in a statement about Thompson’s death.
Earlier this month, Fulton County commissioners approved a $4 million settlement with Thompson’s family, according to meeting documents.
In announcing the civil rights investigation last month, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the apparent neglect was “far from isolated.” Since then, the sheriff’s office has announced that two inmates have died in Fulton’s care.
The sheriff agrees that the jail prevents him from humanely housing inmates. That’s why he wants the county to spend $1.7 billion on a new jail with 4,500 beds.
The existing facility is over capacity, leaving some inmates to sleep on the ground in what look like plastic canoes.
“If we know that a place is not fit for human habitation, we should accept that any human being would suffer. That could be a former elected official or the man who sleeps in the park outside your door,” said Moki Macias, executive director of Atlanta Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative. PAD is a program that works with the city of Atlanta to offer social services instead of police intervention.
Federal investigators are in Atlanta this week to tour the facility, said Tiffany Roberts, director of public policy with the Southern Center for Human Rights. The center has sued the county over the jail multiple times and encouraged federal officials to investigate the jail after Thompson’s insect-covered body was found.
But the problems are nothing new. “Sure, Labat will say his new, shiny jail will fix things, but that’s what they said when they built Rice Street,” Roberts said.
The jail and its management have faced federal oversight for four decades. In the 1980s, county officials raced to build the current jail after facing a federal lawsuit because of overcrowding conditions at the previous jail, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Officials in 1989 spent $50 million of taxpayer funds to open the Rice Street jail with 6.5 times more beds, but the beds were immediately filled as the nation waged its “war on drugs.”
The newspaper’s story about the jail’s opening reported Martin L. King III, a Fulton commissioner at the time, as saying: “If we don’t do something — while we are opening this facility today, six months from now it will be obsolete.”
He was wrong — the jail was obsolete in five months. Articles from then show county officials were already considering a bond referendum for a $35 million expansion. That was Thanksgiving.
By Christmas, guards were handing out extra blankets and coffee because of a faulty heating system and freak snowstorms that swept across the South, newspapers reported. In the years that followed, taxpayers had to pay millions to fix a long list of problems, including connecting some exterior doors to the security system and replacing porcelain toilets that were quickly broken.
This was all before an HIV-positive inmate represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights brought a lawsuit in 1999 against the Fulton County jail for allegedly denying proper medical care to him and other HIV-positive inmates. Ill prisoners were cared for by other inmates because officers and medical staff refused to touch the HIV-positive people or even bring them food, according to a report from the center.
U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob presided over the case, and he soon saw that the complaint was only part of a larger issue.
Shoob oversaw the release of 200 people who had served more time awaiting a court hearing than what their sentences would have been if they were convicted, according to the center.
Then Shoob got another case that changed the future of the jail. In 2004, Frederick Harper filed a handwritten complaint alleging a guard had knocked him unconscious while the inmate was handcuffed. That same year, Shoob took control of the jail away from the sheriff at the time.
By 2006, Shoob had written a consent order that required no inmates should sleep on the ground while also setting population limits and staffing levels. In 2011, inmates were sleeping on the ground, and Shoob penned an order that Fulton’s commissioners buy more jail space in Atlanta or risk being held in contempt of court.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Fulton County gained power over its Rice Street jail — 11 years and a reported $1 billion after Harper wrote his letter.
But problems have continued.
Severe storms in July knocked out power, leaving the jail to run air conditioning off generators for an entire weekend of a hot Georgia summer, local outlets reported.
In May, according to a sheriff’s office news release, an inmate allegedly dug a hole through a shower wall into an adjacent cell block and stabbed another inmate. A sweep of cells revealed more shanks made from parts of the building.
“It presents a constant challenge for us to eliminate things like this from access to the inmates. This jail has clearly outlived its useful life,” interim Fulton County Jail commander Curtis Clark said in the news release.
Roberts, with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said she was in the Fulton jail hundreds of times during her stint as a public defender.
When asked how the 19 people recently indicted would find the jail, she said: “Clients of means do not experience the true devastation that people without resources do.” She added that even the conditions in the booking area are “below standard.”
Macias, who heads the pre-arrest diversion program, said it is usually the most vulnerable people in society who are harmed or killed during a stay in the Fulton jail.
“These places should be places that any human being would still be safe in, no matter who they are,” she said.