A federal investigation was launched into the conditions at the Fulton County Jail in Georgia after a mentally ill inmate was found on the floor slumped over a toilet in a cell in the psychiatric ward, eaten to death by bedbugs in what his family’s lawyers say is one of the most deplorable cases of severe neglect they’ve seen.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the DOJ launched the investigation based on serious allegations of unsafe, unsanitary living conditions, excessive force and violence — including homicides — in the jail, discrimination against incarcerated individuals with mental health issues, and failure to provide adequate medical care to incarcerated individuals.
“People in prisons and jails are entitled to basic protections of their civil rights,” Garland said in a statement. “During this comprehensive review of the conditions of confinement at the Fulton County Jail, the Justice Department will determine whether systemic violations of federal laws exist, and if so, how to correct them.”
The investigation will examine living conditions, medical and mental health care, use of excessive force, and protection from violence, officials said. The investigation will also examine whether Fulton County and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office discriminated against people with psychiatric disabilities inside the jail.
Lashawn Thompson, in the jail’s psychiatric wing due to his diagnosed mental health issues, was found dead on Sept. 13. He was covered with feces and “blood-sucking ectoparasites” — body lice. He had an “innumerable number of insects” on his head, hair, face, nose, mouth, chest, pubic area, arms, and legs, an independent autopsy report released by his family’s lawyers found. He was dehydrated and malnourished.
Ben Crump, one of his family’s attorneys, said Thompson endured a torturous death and contends he was killed by the “extreme neglect of the Fulton County Jail and its staff.”
Crump and his co-counsel, Michael Harper, welcomed the DOJ’s announcement.
“While nothing can undo the injustice that Lashawn Thompson faced, it is a tragedy that can hopefully amount to much-needed change inside of the Fulton County Jail,” the statement said. “It is our prayer that the DOJ confirms the clear pattern of negligence and abuse that happens in Fulton County and swiftly ends it so that no other family experiences this devastation.”
In a statement, Fulton County and the Sheriff’s Office said they have been made aware of the announcement and will be cooperating fully with the investigation.
Sheriff Patrick Labat said he welcomes the investigation for what he called a longstanding humanitarian crisis at the Fulton County Rice Street Jail. He said he has repeatedly raised concerns about the jail’s dangerous overcrowding, dilapidated infrastructure, and critical staffing shortages.
“Recognizing the systemic concerns that have plagued the Fulton County Jail for decades, I contacted DOJ’s National Institute of Corrections (NIC) in September of 2022, making an urgent request for a security audit, technical assistance and support surrounding the circumstances at the jail,” he said in a statement. “As recently as 10 days ago, we had an in-person conferral with NIC’s Executive Leadership Team and, together, instituted a strategy and course of action that will include dispatching national experts.”
He said the best outcome from the probe would confirm what a report in March found – that the Rice Street Jail is not viable and a replacement is needed.
“Despite the difficult circumstances, we will continue to work collaboratively with our partners to ensure the health and safety of all the women and men remanded to our care,” he said.
Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff announced in April a federal inquiry into conditions of incarceration after Thompson’s death and the death of 29-year-old Joshua McLemore in his cell at Jackson County Jail in Indiana after suffering from malnutrition and dehydration while in solitary confinement at the facility.
Thompson wound up at the jail after police from Georgia Tech found him sleeping in a park outside a childcare center in Midtown in June last year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. When police ran his name, they discovered an arrest warrant on a car theft charge from 2017. Thompson was also charged with simple battery for allegedly spitting on one of the officers who arrested him.
He lost 32 pounds less than 90 days after his arrest. When he entered the jail on June 12, 2022, he weighed 180 pounds. He weighed 148 pounds at his autopsy on Sept. 14, 2022. In addition to dehydration and malnourishment, he hadn’t been medicated for his schizophrenia, leading to “a fatal cardiac arrhythmia,” the independent autopsy said.
Erin George, the national director of policy at The Bail Project, which works to take money out of justice to create a more just, equitable, and humane pretrial system, wrote that Thompson’s case was tantamount to a death sentence after being unable to afford his $2,500 bail for a misdemeanor charge.
On any given day, she wrote, more than 400,000 legally innocent people are held in abhorrent and often deadly conditions in jails across the country. And she said it’s getting worse.
“Unfortunately, horrifying stories like this are all too common,” she wrote. “These people – our family, friends, and fellow community members – have not been convicted. They are being jailed pretrial as they await their day in court. The vast majority are forced to suffer through unsanitary conditions, violence, and deplorable healthcare for one simple reason: they cannot afford to pay the price tag on their freedom.”
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Feds launch probe after Lashawn Thompson died at in jail
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