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A City Within A City

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Aerial view of the Cobb County Adult Detention Center.

Managing the Cobb County jail is a complex operation akin to running a small town.

If there’s one county facility/service we all need, but that most of us hope to avoid ever seeing, it is the Adult Detention Center — otherwise known as jail. Whether we realize it or not, we all sleep a little better at night because we know our local Sheriff’s Office is there protecting us and maintaining a facility that holds those waiting for their case to be finalized. Perhaps you or someone you know will never be incarcerated here, but it would behoove us all to know how and what this one million square foot, 19-acre facility is like and just how large the scope of its operation actually is.

Most Cobb Countians think the sole mission of the sheriff’s office is law enforcement. It’s not… there’s school support, traffic duties, serving warrants, Constitutional obligations for the court including providing court security, and much more. Then, there’s the Detention Center which includes the safety of the inmates and staff, and their healthcare, which can be quite a complicated issue. “Forty percent, give or take, of our adult population here — male and female, are under some type of psychological medication or doctor care,” said Sheriff Neil Warren. “And our staff works in partnership with our medical provider in dealing with this segment of our population to ensure the best possible care due to their expertise.” We leave that up to the doctors, and that’s just another piece of this huge, complex little city within a city here on County Services Pkwy. that runs 24/7.”

The man in charge
Leading the 800-plus men and women of the Sheriff’s Office is Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren. He assumed the role of Sheriff in January 2004 following the retirement of long-time Cobb Sheriff Bill Hutson. Elected to the office by voters in November 2004, Sheriff Warren would later be chosen “Georgia Sheriff of the Year” by the Georgia Sheriffs Association and was named one of America’s top ten anti-illegal immigration Sheriffs in 2012 by Fox News. He has been employed with the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office since 1977, and worked his way through the ranks, starting as a sheriff’s deputy. He was subsequently promoted through the ranks to sergeant, lieutenant, and captain. In 1984, Warren was appointed as chief investigator and then to Chief Deputy Sheriff in 1994 where he served until taking over the Office of Sheriff. Having been elected to the office four times (2004, 2008, 2012 & 2016), Sheriff Warren continues to serve the citizens of Cobb County today.

Sheriff Warren

“I’ve worked in every facet of the Sheriff’s Office; I’ve worked in the jail; I’ve run the prison — Cobb County used to have its own prison …I worked in investigations; I love the job,” Sheriff Warren said. “I feel that it’s been my calling to be here and I don’t think I’m done yet.”

History of the facility
The current Adult Detention Center was originally built on County Services Parkway (formerly County Farm Road) in 1989 with a jail bond referendum. The jail was designed with four “pods,” each pod having six blocks and one recreation yard. Inmates could be kept in their pod for most activities and easily released into the recreation yard with minimal staff.

During the late 1990s, then Chief Deputy Neil Warren was heavily involved in the first expansion of the facility adding almost 1,200 beds at a cost of $39 million. The expansion continued the concept of pods with nominal inmate movement; however, it included a new type of housing. The older portion used actual cell housing; the expansion included some dormitory-style housing areas and in 2003 a work release center was opened. In 2010, Sheriff Warren oversaw a significant jail upgrade and expansion to allow housing for just over 3,000 inmates on the campus. That $110-million expansion, which was funded through a special local option sales tax approved by voters in 2005, includes a state of the art inmate visitation center.

At any size, this jail — any jail — is a short-term facility for people in state or federal custody. For instance, people awaiting trial who have been charged with crimes and for whom bail is not a possibility. Prisons, on the other hand, are for convicted felons who have been sentenced to a term of one year or longer. People often confuse or conflate these terms, but they are not interchangeable.

“It’s a detention facility until their case is adjudicated,” said Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren. “The inmates who are here are waiting to go before a judge to be adjudicated. Now, I will say there are some inmates who are here who’ve already been adjudicated, [but] they’re here because they violated their parole or violated their probation.” Warren also stated that it is the goal of the Sheriff’s Office to move people through the jail system as quickly as possible. “We do our best to work with the judges and the courts to get folks out as quickly as we can,” Warren said.

The detention center today
Each year, more than 25,000 individuals are booked into the jail. That’s more people than pass through many of the nation’s regional airports. Of course, no one stays at the jail long-term. There are approximately 2,000 inmates there now. Staff and deputies have to manage a plethora of tasks and duties from laundry and running the commissary, to overseeing religious programming, volunteer programs, and self-help courses. It’s truly a large undertaking to oversee the housing and care for 2,000 people. There are many American towns that don’t have that many people.

Additionally, the Sheriff’s Office is charged with overseeing the public safety of all residents of the county, which since Sheriff Warren’s tenure has grown from a few hundred thousand people to more than 800,000. During that time, he has overseen a large expansion of the Detention Center and maintained staffing at a time when other law enforcement departments are losing people.

Day-to-day operations
For fiscal year 2018 (the latest data available to us), the detention center had a total operating budget of $85,706,894. While that may seem like a great deal of money to most people, it starts to look a little smaller when you consider what that funding must cover. First, there are the maintenance and repair costs for the facility. Then there’s the pay and benefits for the sheriff’s 766 employees (476 sworn/deputies and 290 civilians). And finally, the bulk of the funding (almost $60 million) is used for housing, feeding, and caring for inmates.

For example, the Detention Center currently serves more than 5,400 meals per day to inmates (as of November, there were 1,913 inmates in the jail). That equates to a cost of $1.34/meal, or more than $7,000 per day. Over the course of a year, that’s more than $2.5 million. Additionally, the Sheriff’s Office reports spending about $11 million last year on healthcare for inmates.

“We’d really like the reader to understand the complexity of running a jail and balancing that against the constitutional duties that the sheriff has to adhere to,” said Warren. “The Sheriff is an elected official in law enforcement — the only one in Cobb County — and he has to be not only a person concerned with the political side of the job, but also act as a CEO of what would be a large corporation.” Such responsibilities, Warren said, cannot be handled by just anyone. A sheriff must have the wherewithal to work with lawmakers, to manage a large budget, to look out for the public interest, and to withstand public criticism or scrutiny. “It’s a very big job to fill,” he said.