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Family of Lashawn Thompson Demands Justice After He Was “Eaten Alive” by Insects in Atlanta Jail

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In Atlanta, Georgia, the family of a prisoner says he was “eaten alive” by insects and bedbugs in his cell there last year. The family of 35-year-old Lashawn Thompson, who was being held in the jail’s psychiatric wing, is demanding a criminal investigation and that the jail be shut down. In an exclusive interview, we speak to Thompson’s brother Brad McCrae and sister Shenita Thompson, as well as Michael Harper, a lawyer representing the family.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Atlanta, Georgia, where over 600 prisoners are being transferred from the Fulton County Jail after the family of a Black prisoner said he was “eaten alive” by insects and bedbugs in his cell there last year. The family of 35-year-old Lashawn Thompson, who was being held in the jail’s psychiatric wing, is demanding a criminal investigation and that the jail should be shut down. On Monday, several of the jail’s executive staff resigned, including the chief jailer, assistant chief jailer and members of the criminal investigative division. Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat said in a statement, quote, “It’s clear to me that it’s time, past time, to clean house.” In an earlier statement, the sheriff said, quote, “it’s fair to say that this is one of the many cases that illustrate the desperate need for expanded and better mental health services.”

This Thursday, the family and community members will rally outside the jail as awareness about the conditions there and this case grow. Photos shared with Democracy Now! by the lawyer for Lashawn Thompson show filthy conditions in what’s believed to be Thompson’s cell, where he was found dead on September 19th last year. The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s autopsy report said Thompson’s cell was in, quote, “extremely poor condition with insect infection and other filthiness around him” and had a, quote, “severe bedbug infestation.” The Fulton County’s autopsy noted, quote, “The body is infested with an enormous number of small insects that are 2 mm in length.” Thompson’s cause of death is listed as undetermined.

Perhaps most shocking is a graphic image released by the family’s lawyer that shows Thompson’s face at the time of his death. His family has asked that the world see it, and with a warning to our viewers, we are showing it briefly now.

Lashawn Thompson’s death came after he had been held for three months on a misdemeanor charge and was put in the jail’s psychiatric wing after officials determined he was mentally ill. The corrections officer who wrote the incident report about his death noted, quote, “I have communicated with mental health staff about the living conditions of inmate Thompson on previous dates.”

For more, we’re joined in a global TV/radio/podcast broadcast exclusive by three guests. In Atlanta, Michael Harper is a lawyer representing Lashawn Thompson’s family. In Florida, we’re joined by Lashawn’s sister Shenita Thompson, and Lashawn’s brother Brad McCrae is in Montgomery, Alabama.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Brad, I want to start with you. You are Lashawn’s brother. We really weighed whether to show that photograph, that your family wants the world to see, of your brother’s head. And I’m wondering if you can talk about why you felt it was critical that the world see it.

BRAD McCRAE: Yes, ma’am. First off, I want to say good morning and thanks for having me on.

As far as with the photo, my personal feelings and emotion about the photos was Emmett Till. I thought about Emmett Till. It broke my heart to see those photos. And we wanted the world to see it, so the world can feel it, and the world can wake up and see what’s going on out here and get behind it and make a change. Make a change. We want the world to wake up and make a change.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Shenita Thompson, the sister of Lashawn Thompson, when you first heard of what had happened to your brother, and your reaction when you realized the conditions that he was in.

SHENITA THOMPSON: When I first found out what happened to my brother, it just, like, broke my heart. Just to see the conditions that he was in, and especially the photos, just to see all the bugs in his face, his eyes, his nose, like, it really, really broke my heart just to see him like that and what he went through. Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, I’d like to ask Brad McCrae: The fact that the sheriff of Fulton County is now saying he vows to clean house, what’s your reaction to the actions of law enforcement subsequent to your brother’s death?

BRAD McCRAE: Well, I want to thank the sheriff for trying to clean house and do everything that he feels like he could do. I wish it was done earlier. I wish it would have been done so my brother might still be here, but I want to thank the sheriff for what he’s trying to do. And he’s trying to make it right on his behalf, but we’ve got a long way to go, and I hope it keeps going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to point out, Brad, that, for our listeners, you are wearing a T-shirt that says “In Loving Memory,” and there’s a beautiful picture of your brother Lashawn on your shirt. Were you — and I also want to ask Shenita — if you both were in communication with him, if you were able to talk to him when he was in the jail? Shenita, let’s start with you. Did he talk to you about the bedbugs, the insects, the infestation, the conditions of the jail?

SHENITA THOMPSON: Like my brother had previously said, we didn’t even know he was in jail, so…

AMY GOODMAN: So the horror of this. A report by the Southern Center for Human Rights found at least 10 people died at the Fulton County Jail last year, and said, quote, “The Fulton County Jail has been understaffed and mismanaged for decades, leading to multiple lawsuits and consent decrees, but the problems have been particularly acute in recent months as Fulton County Sheriff Labat has failed to maintain even existing staff. On September 21st, Labat stated that he had lost more staff than he was able to hire, and as of October 10th there were at least 155 staff vacancies.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has issued a report on how to quickly depopulate the jail, that said, quote, “Fulton County’s failure to account for people’s ability to pay when setting bail is a significant factor in the number of people held in jail,” and found at least 12% of the people were held there due to “inability to pay bail — meaning a wealthier individual with the same charges and bail amount would be released.” Some were held for over two years.

Which brings us to Michael Harper, the attorney for Lashawn’s family. Michael, can you talk about why we are just learning about this case now, and the significance, the impact it has had, I mean, removing 600 prisoners? Talk about what you understand happened, how Lashawn was in that mental health unit of the jail, if you can call it that, what the autopsy means, the photographs that you have that are so horrific.

MICHAEL HARPER: Yeah. Good morning.

Let me start with the photographs, because there is some talk from the sheriff about the authenticity of those photographs and where they came from. Those horrific photographs came directly from the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s jail death investigation that was provided to the family from the County Medical Examiner’s Office. They are the exact photos of the cell that Lashawn Thompson was housed in when he died. They are horrible.

But what happened here, as you noted, the jail knew that Lashawn Thompson had mental health issues in June of 2022. They put him in a psychiatric wing of that jail and neglected him. He was there for three months. There are reports, in the incident report from the death, that the officers, as you alluded to, were aware that he was declining, he was in a filthy cell. They complained to their superiors, and nothing happened. He was there until he died, and his body was found infested with those horrible bedbug bites and lice and insects. It is just beyond tragic, what happened to him. He’s mentally ill. He was not able, we believe, to contact his family. He was not able to speak for himself. They held him there. It was their responsibility to make sure he was safe and to make sure that his cell was clean. And remember, Lashawn Thompson was a pretrial detainee. He had not been convicted of any crime. He was being held there until he got his day in court. So they had an obligation to make sure that he was safe.

The new information about the sheriff cleaning house and moving inmates, that’s a wonderful thing to happen. But Lashawn Thompson died in September of last year. The sheriff was well aware of this case then. We believe the measures that he’s taken now are solely based on the international outrage of Lashawn Thompson’s death. We appreciate any change to keep inmates safe, but it should have happened before Lashawn Thompson died, and certainly after he died, before the media attention.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Michael Harper, you’ve represented others who died in the same facility, including William Barnett, a man charged with stealing a lawnmower, and also Antonio May, in 2018, who was beaten to death by six detention officers. Talk about these two related cases and what it indicates about how law enforcement has been dealing with this jail now for years.

MICHAEL HARPER: Yeah, there’s certainly a systemic issue of abuse and neglect at the Fulton County Jail here in Atlanta. Antonio May’s case was horrific. This is a man who also went into the jail with mental health issues. They were well aware. It’s well documented he had mental health issues. He was in a holding cell. When he first came in to be processed, he began removing his clothing, and he allegedly would not put his clothing back on when instructed to by the detention officers. For that small infraction, the DART team, the specialized team at the jail, Direct Action Response Team, went into his holding cell, tased him nine times in a minute and a half, beat him, put him in a restraint chair, took him to a shower area to wash the pepper spray off his face, and his heart went out. And they literally watched him, tied down to a restraint chair. And they had extra restraints. The evidence in that case showed that not just the restraints on the restraint chair, but they used additional restraints, against jail policy. And while he was restrained in that manner, his heart went out in front of them, and he died restrained in that chair. Just a horrific case for such a small, minor infraction.

William Barnett, another tragic case, went to the jail on a misdemeanor. The jail was aware that he had a chemical imbalance. He had low potassium. They sent him out, because he had some health issues, sent him out to the hospital. When he came back to the jail, the instructions from the hospital was for the jail to monitor William Barnett, check his potassium level to make sure that he did not decline. They did nothing. They never gave him more potassium. They never monitored him. And he was found unresponsive, went into cardiac arrest in his cell and died. I mean, these are just inexcusable, horrific deaths.

And let me also say this about the sheriff wanting a new jail. We applaud that, and we agree that we probably need a new jail in Fulton County, but these cases are about neglect. A new jail is not going to stop neglectful detention officers from not caring for mentally ill people. They have to do more training. They have to make sure that the officers are following policy to help those who are least served.

AMY GOODMAN: We wanted to end again with the family of Lashawn. Brad, you’re in Montgomery, in a studio in Alabama, a historic place, where Rosa Parks led the Montgomery bus boycott. You’re not far from Bryan Stevenson’s lynching museum. And, Shenita, I want to begin with your description of your brother. You’re in Winter Haven, Florida. Isn’t that where Lashawn grew up? Can you talk about Lashawn? And also, was he able to get help for his schizophrenia?

SHENITA THOMPSON: Yes, he grew up in Winter Haven, Florida. He went to Winter Haven High School. He loved music. He loved listening to his headphones, and he was always dealing with his headphones. He loved just music and stuff. Getting help for his mental health, yes, he was. But, you know, with mental health, it is hard. It’s just — it’s just heartbreaking, what happened. I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Brad, how do you want us to remember your brother Lashawn?

BRAD McCRAE: Yes, ma’am. I want the world to remember him as I do, as a loving person, a playful person. He loved music. He loved to cook. I want the world to remember him as their cousin, their brother, their uncle, or whatever the case may be, because it could happen to their family, just like it happened to mine.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Michael Harper, there’s going to be a major protest outside the Fulton County Jail on Thursday. Can you talk about what you are demanding and if you have filed suit on behalf of Lashawn?

MICHAEL HARPER: We have not filed any civil suit yet. Right now we’re just trying to raise awareness and bring attention to this horrific case. The rally will be to call for a criminal investigation into the death of Lashawn Thompson. It’s fine to clean house. It is fine to make changes. But someone needs to be held responsible for the horrible neglect that Lashawn Thompson underwent. So we want a criminal investigation into this case. We will also demand that the jail is closed down and that Fulton County builds a new jail. We’re calling the Department of Justice in Washington to launch a civil rights investigation into the jail, as well. And there will be other community leaders there. The Georgia NAACP will be there. A lot of community leaders will be there. This is our jail in Fulton County, and we have to make change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you all so much for being with us, Michael Harper, the lawyer for Lashawn Thompson’s family, and Lashawn Thompson’s family, sister Shenita Thompson, speaking to us from Winter Haven, Florida, and Lashawn’s brother Brad McCrae, speaking to us from Montgomery, Alabama. Thank you so much. Our condolences to you both.

Next up, as a new study finds poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, we speak to the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Matthew Desmond. His new book, Poverty, by America. Stay with us.

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“Poverty, by America”: Author Matthew Desmond on How U.S. Punishes the Poor & Subsidizes the Wealthy

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