Fulton County officials on Tuesday (July 18) heard two proposals regarding the future of the Fulton County Jail.
Eric Ratts, principal architect of DLZ Engineering, suggested the jail could be expanded or relocated. Fulton County Commissioners and members of the county council heard a cost analysis for both options.
“We’re projecting that you will have probably about 40 or so more inmates than you do in your facility today,” Ratts said, noting the 32-year-old jail was originally designed to house 36 inmates but now can house 88. “I will be very up front with you, if you build a 200-bed jail, you’ll find a way to fill it and that’s the unfortunate thing about jails ... You build it, and they come.”
To expand the facility, Ratts estimates the overall cost would range from $14.5 million to $16 million. That would include an additional 72 beds, new classrooms, a new booking area, sallyport and kitchen, as well as upgrades to the existing building systems and minimal renovations improvements.
Ratts noted that available space for potential expansion is limited and that “going vertically just doesn’t work.” In fact, the only area for expansion would be on the north side of the jail into the parking lot, at the corner of Madison and East Eighth streets. Future expansion beyond that point would be nearly impossible, he said.
Ratts estimates it would cost between $18.5 million and $22 million to build a new jail, which could accommodate a population of 160 inmates, if needed, and be expandable to 250 beds in the future. The proposed 52,500-square-foot facility would also include spaces related to the booking process, kitchen and laundry space, as well as staff areas and training rooms.
“Most every county, believe it or not, can afford to build a jail,” Ratts said. “The tough part is being able to operate that jail.”
He said county officials have done a good job in maintaining the jail’s overall population. He cited another county jail that had 122 beds but more than 190 inmates, including 23 females in an eight-bed area.
Despite alternative sentencing practices, which Ratts encourages, he noted the population of inmates in jails nationwide has more than tripled since 1985. Jails in the U.S. now hold more than 800,000 people on a given day. Ratts also points out that the Fulton County Jail, like many others, has become the housing unit for people struggling with mental health, addiction and behavior management issues.
“We’re trying to treat everyone the same way that we did 30 years ago in your facility and it just doesn’t work very well,” Ratts said.
He conceded that any jail project is a hard sell to the public, some of whom consider jails to be “detox” centers.
“As you move forward, I would encourage you to have as many public meetings about your jail project that you can, keep people informed, let them voice their opinions,” Ratts said. “Whether it’s for or against the project, we can possibly get some information that you can use to keep everyone informed, but also then to make better decisions because this is a jail for the entire county.”