In the last five weeks, five inmates have died while being held at the massive Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. Since September 2022, 16 people have died while being detained there.
Built in 1989 in advance of the 1996 Olympic Games — to house initially 1,125 prisoners, then expanded to hold 2,591 — it has been overcrowded since the day it opened. The city engaged in a massive sweep of houseless people prior to the games, and that practice has continued through to today.
Earlier this year, it was reported some 3,200 people were held there, many sleeping in makeshift beds in hallways and common areas. At least 500 or more had been arrested for petty violations but could not make the bail. Still many others were never formally indicted or given a court date because of the backup caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the particularly gruesome details of Lashawn Thompson’s death last September have brought about an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. The body of Thompson, a homeless man with mental health issues who had been housed in the psychiatric wing of the jail, was discovered covered in insects, including lice and bedbugs. His cell was filthy with black mold on the floor, walls and fixtures. There was no evidence that he had been given food or water recently.
Clearly Thompson was left to suffer and die, “eaten alive” by insects according to his relatives. Just days ago, his family received a four million dollar settlement from Fulton County, eager no doubt to prevent more damaging details from becoming public in a court case.
Crimes against humanity
However, the horrors of the Fulton County Jail are sure to be further exposed by the Aug. 26 death of 34-year-old Samuel Lawrence, who was found “unresponsive” in his cell. Despite having been held for seven months, he still had not been formally charged with any crime and therefore had no bond set. A 2022 ACLU report found that at least 500 people had been held 90 days or more without having been formally charged, leaving them in legal limbo.
Lawrence, however, just days before his death, filed a 12-page civil rights complaint that detailed the regular beatings he received from inmates and guards, denial of food and medical care, being held in an isolation cell without water and a working toilet and being forced to sleep on the bare floor. His actions to document his grievances in a legal complaint will bring heightened scrutiny to the failure of the carceral system to reduce, much less solve, anti-social behavior.
The names of the other four people who died in August in the Fulton County Jail are Montay Stinson, 40 years old, on Aug. 1, who had been held since Oct. 2022 without charges; Christopher Smith, in jail since Oct. 2019 with no bond, found “unresponsive” in the medical unit on Aug. 11; Alexander Hawkins, 66 years old, found “unresponsive” in the medical unit on Aug. 17; and on Aug. 31, 23-year-old Dayvion Blake was killed in a knife attack which injured three others.
Most officials, including Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, claim the solution is to build a new jail at the cost of $1.7 billion and in the meantime transfer 700 inmates to the Atlanta City Detention Center, which has its own history of neglect, human rights violations and deaths.
In fact, it had been slated to be closed and refigured as a community resource center until Mayor Andre Dickens and the Atlanta City Council reneged on their prior vote and promise.
The people who have been named in this article were Black and poor and were challenged in some cases with mental health issues that this profit-driven system provided no care or solutions. Their unnecessary deaths underscore the truth of the abolitionist slogan, “Prisons are concentration camps for the poor.”
Some resource information came from the Atlanta Journal Constitution Sept. 2 article entitled “Inmate who died sought help from feds.”