City DopeNews

Athens Built a New Jail; Hopefully, They Won’t Come

I stopped by the Athens-Clarke County Jail Friday to say hi to Ort and found out we’re the proud owners of a shiny new stockade. (Kidding; at press time, Ort and his attorney, Bill Overend, were trying to wriggle out of a five-day sentence imposed by Municipal Court Judge Leslie Spornberger Jones because Ort still hasn’t completely cleaned up his carport.)

We do have a brand new clink—and let’s see how many synonyms for “jail” I can come up with—but it’s been years in the making. Sheriff Ira Edwards had been asking for one since he was elected almost 15 years ago; ACC officials resisted for years until Mayor Heidi Davison finally appointed a criminal justice task force in 2008. At the time, the existing 380-bed jail was severely overcrowded, with inmates sleeping on mats on the floor, and many were shipped down to a private jail in South Georgia at a cost of millions to Athens taxpayers.

The task force—chaired by commissioners Harry Sims and Kelly Girtz—hired consulting firm Carter Goble, who found that the jail was not only overcrowded, but outmoded and crumbling. Subsequently, commissioners put a $73 million jail expansion and renovation project on the SPLOST 2011 list, which voters approved by a wide margin.

Five years later, the new 600-bed hoosegow—a portion of the old jail will be renovated, bringing the total capacity up to 780—is almost complete and $15 million under budget. The sheriff’s office held a dedication ceremony and offered tours last Friday and will start moving inmates in next month. I spent the tour looking over my shoulder, waiting for the mayor or somebody to sneak up behind me and slam a cell door shut. There was cake, although without a file in it. Maps were given out, but I couldn’t figure out how to access the sewer system, so they’re no good for escaping.

Jail is not a fun place to be. Except to go to court, inmates rarely if ever leave a cinder-block pod, some dorm-style and some with cells, where they eat, sleep, bathe, talk with visitors via video, receive medical treatment and “exercise” in a small concrete “yard” with high walls and no ceiling. But it’s certainly a cleaner and more humane environment than the dank and moldy old jail, which I’ve also been inside (for journalism, I swear).

“Most people spending time here haven’t been convicted of anything. They’re awaiting trial, and some of them go to trial and are found not guilty,” ACC Manager Alan Reddish said. “We need a facility that respects the rights of our citizens.”

Those citizens, thankfully, are fewer than before. The aforementioned task force, in addition to recommending a new jail, also recommended a host of other reforms aimed at reducing the inmate population. ACC now has a work-release diversion center; special courts for people with drug, alcohol and mental health issues; and an expanded electronic monitoring program.

On most days, the new jail will only be a little over half full. In the planning stages, some commissioners pushed for a smaller slammer, but Reddish convinced them otherwise—a decision he stood by Friday. “I wish we didn’t have to say we need 780 beds, and today we don’t,” he said. “But the day will come.”

Graduation Rates: Maybe Phil Lanoue won National Superintendent of the Year a year early.

Graduation rates have been up and down during Lanoue’s seven-year tenure as Clarke County School District superintendent, usually somewhere in the 60–70 percent range, which is unacceptably low.

This year, though, more than 80 percent of Clarke County School District students graduated within four years in 2015, by far the highest mark since the current measurement standard was adopted in 2011, according to figures released by the Georgia Department of Education last week. Graduation rates topped 80 percent at both traditional high schools, Cedar Shoals and Clarke Central, and rose from 20 percent to 50 percent at the alternative Classic City High School. The statewide graduation rate rose from 72.5 percent to 78.8 percent.

Eighth-graders’ CRTC scores have been on the upswing for years, and it looks like that’s paying off now in terms of those middle-schoolers going on to graduate.

But let’s not start patting ourselves on the back just yet. In 2015, the state stopped requiring students to pass a graduation test in order to receive a diploma, thereby removing one hurdle and goosing the number. There can also be some noise in these numbers, and only a couple more years of data will tell us whether 2015 was an anomaly or a trend.