10 inmates have died this year at Georgia’s Fulton County Jail. Is a new facility the solution?

The notorious Atlanta detention center is the same jail that former President Trump had his mug shot taken last month as advocates complain of a jail in peril.

Fulton County Jail sign
Brynn Anderson/AP

A 24-year-old inmate was found unresponsive in his cell late last month at Atlanta's Fulton County Jail and later died after jail staff attempted “lifesaving measures” to revive him, the Fulton County Sheriff's Office said earlier this month. The man, identified as Shawndre Delmore, is the sixth death at the jail since July and the 10th already this year — a disturbing figure for a pretrial detention center.

It’s also becoming somewhat of the norm for the jail — known to locals by its address, Rice Street — which has long been plagued with issues of overcrowding and sanitation.

But inmate advocates like Robyn Hasan, who was formerly incarcerated in the notorious jail, believe many if not all of these deaths could have been avoided with reforms ranging from reevaluating bonds to quickening indictment cases. Delmore, for instance, was behind bars since April 1 on a $2,500 bond for a burglary charge, according to officials.

The facility’s notoriety has sparked comparisons to other troubled jails, namely New York City’s Rikers Island, one of the deadliest jails in the U.S. that’s expected to eventually close.

The entrance to Rikers Island
The entrance to Rikers Island in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

However, Hasan says jail leadership refuses to do anything substantial about the rising death numbers because they have a different motivation — a nearly $2 billion proposed facility.

“Having gone inside Fulton County, the jail itself is in a deteriorated state,” Hasan, who now serves as the executive director with Women on the Rise, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that advocates for women targeted or affected by the criminal legal system, told Yahoo News.

“Purposely it is being left unkempt to justify building a new $2 billion jail that the sheriff is determined to build with the taxpayers’ money. A new jail will not stop the deaths that are occurring inside.”

Read more on Yahoo News: Inside the Fulton County Jail, where Trump and 18 of his allies are expected to be booked

And she’s not alone. Gerald Griggs, a member of the Georgia NAACP, told WSB-TV, an ABC affiliate in Atlanta, that a new jail with the same failing plan in place is a recipe for disaster. A 34-year-old inmate died in the jail last month after waiting nearly four years for his trial to start and another inmate, 66, died while awaiting trial on a $5,000 bond for a shoplifting charge.

“There’s a crisis at the [Fulton County] jail,” Griggs said. “I don’t think building another jail is the solution. I think alleviating the crowding in the jail, providing for more health care services and mental health services [will help greatly].”

Fulton County Jail history

Established in 1989, Fulton County Jail was initially designed to house 1,125 inmates. Today, the detention center currently holds more than 2,500 inmates, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and 87% of the jail population is Black. It’s also the place where former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants turned themselves in last month after being indicted over their attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election result in Georgia.

The Fulton County Jail
The exterior of the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Overall, more than 60 Fulton inmates have died between 2009 and October 2022, the highest total for any jail in Georgia during that time, according to the Journal-Constitution's investigation. Last year, 15 inmates died at the jail, including four within a week.

Despite the mounting deaths, the jail rejects the narrative that they aren’t doing all they can to prevent more deaths.

“The recent outbreak of violence at the Fulton County Jail is of grave concern but unfortunately is not surprising considering the long-standing, dangerous overcrowding and the crumbling walls of the facility that are literally being crafted into makeshift weapons that inmates use to attack each other and staff,” Sheriff Pat Labat said in a statement provided to Yahoo News, noting that the jail is in constant negotiations with other detention facilities to outsource inmates and does frequent mass shakedowns to seize contraband.

Read more on Yahoo News: 'Like a horror movie': Photos of Lashawn Thompson's body and Fulton County Jail cell spark outrage

DOJ probe and new jail proposal

The issues at the jail have led the Department of Justice to step in. The agency in July opened a civil rights investigation into the jail’s conditions with officials citing violence, filthy conditions and the death of Lashawn Thompson, a 35-year-old man, who was found in a cell “eaten alive” by bedbugs and other insects, according to his family.

“Our investigation into these matters is guided by one core principle: People held in jails and prisons do not surrender their constitutional and civil rights at the jailhouse door,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said during a news conference at the investigation’s announcement, adding that most people in jails have not been convicted.

Fulton County sheriffs stand guard outside the Fulton County Jail
Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

The investigation has focused on medical and mental health care in the jail as well as whether the Fulton Sheriff’s Office is discriminating against people with psychiatric disabilities.

Yet just weeks after the DOJ probe was announced, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners gave the go-ahead for the county’s top official to find out how to pay for a new $1.7 billion jail facility, which will reportedly include new mental health services, along with education and reentry programs, for inmates and could be done by 2029. It would also likely raise property taxes, which officials said is “unavoidable.”

The new jail is slated to be a 4,500-bed facility.

‘Address the root causes’

But not everyone in the community is sold that a bigger, newer facility will translate to better conditions and improved jail supervision, particularly without addressing lingering issues head on. After conducting its own study last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that four solutions alone would almost immediately fix the overcrowding issue:

  • Enforce a policy alternative diversion program

  • Reevaluate bonds for those with nonviolent charges who can’t afford to pay

  • Indict cases within 90 days

  • Possible release for those with nonviolent charges

The analysis, published in a report entitled “There Are Better Solutions: An Analysis of Fulton County’s Jail Population Data, 2022,” by the ACLU and the ACLU of Georgia, said these fixes address the issues from inception instead of the outcome.

“County officials should address the root causes of overcrowding by abandoning policies and practices that unnecessarily detain people,” Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project and an author of the report, said in a statement.

The Fulton County Jail building
Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Southern Center for Human Rights, which has successfully sued the county various times over jail conditions, in an April letter slammed Labat’s desire for a new jail. The organization noted that in the last two years the sheriff has demonstrated a “clear inability to remedy the conditions of people currently in his care,” largely blaming him for the ongoing issues they say are “the result of a staff culture of cruelty and violence.”

Devin Franklin, movement policy counsel with the center, told Axios that inmates are “functionally trapped” inside Fulton County Jail “not because they’re dangerous, but because they’re poor.”

He adds that despite the less-than-ideal conditions in the jail, the care is nonexistent.

“No one has died because the building is falling apart,” he said. “People have died because they do not care for the people in custody as the Constitution of Georgia requires them to do.”