Commission blocks Clayton jail as shelter

By Ed Brock

The doors of Clayton County's old jail remain locked to refugees from Hurricane Katrina's wrath.

At a press conference on Thursday Clayton County Chief Deputy Tee Cassells said that, in cooperation with State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, D-Riverdale, and Riverdale city officials the Clayton County Sheriff's Office was opening the old jail in Lovejoy as a shelter for Katrina refugees.

But some time Thursday night as volunteer deputies were cleaning the jail building in preparation for that plan, according to "community activist" Stanley Byars, county maintenance personnel cleared the building and changed the locks.

The move came at a time when the county is suing Sheriff Victor Hill over his decision to re-paint his department's vehicles and his removal of a plaque from the walls of the county's current jail in Jonesboro.

"I don't think this is the time for anybody to be playing politics," Byars said.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said the county's decision to keep the jail closed had nothing to do with the lawsuit.

"The building is not currently ready to be occupied," Bell said, adding that the air conditioning must be serviced and safety measures must be put in place. "That's something that (Clayton County Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Alex) Cohilas will coordinate with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency if a request is made."

Cohilas is coordinating all of the county's efforts in helping the refugees who are flooding the county. In some homes, several families are living together and on Friday the county's Department of Family and Children's Services was swamped with people seeking assistance.

Bell and Cohilas said whatever building the county used for a shelter, if they are asked to do so, would have to be ready for long-term occupation and the old jail may not be appropriate.

"We are going to do this, whatever we do, in order," Bell said.

As for Byars report that county maintenance personnel forced the volunteers out of the old jail, Bell said something about the county setting up a "rumor line."

"That building is the property of the county," Bell said. "This county board are the only people who can make a decision on that building and its use and we are not going to haphazardly put it to use."

Byars said he doesn't buy the county's reasoning that the old jail is not suitable for a shelter.

"Just a few months ago it was inhabited by inmates," Byars said.

Cassells did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Cohilas said most of the refugees who are being flown into the state and who are not sent to hospitals have been going to Cobb County.

"Presently we have not been requested to open a shelter in Clayton County," Cohilas said.

Such a shelter would have to be staffed with medical and other personnel from the Red Cross and would need food and water. It would have to have bed space, shower and bath facilities. Currently the county is looking at churches and other buildings for use as a shelter if needed.

Anybody with a need can call the county's EMA office at (770) 478-8271.

Bell also said the county has ordered its personnel to conserve gasoline use in light of rising prices and is asking residents to "practice conservation measures."

"And please don't panic," Bell said.