By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
In the early hours of September 13th last year, Officer Jeana Andrews approached cell #214 in the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia, “to move inmate Thompson…for psych evaluation…I noticed inmate Thompson on the floor, slumped over. His head was in the toilet. I called his name, and I noticed he was not breathing, and he was not moving.”
Thus began Inmate Incident #JA22-3205, describing in cold bureaucratic language the grisly death of 35-year-old Lashawn Panell Thompson, a Black man suffering from mental illness. He had been jailed for three months without charge, in “pretrial detention,” because he couldn’t afford bail.
Lashawn’s family didn’t know he was there. The incident and autopsy reports they later obtained continue the grim account of his death. Officer Andrews asked a prisoner worker, who was in a hazmat suit, to attend to Lashawn, as, she reported, “inmate Thompson was covered in feces and lice.”
The reports include deeply disturbing photos that show Lashawn in death, naked on a mat on the floor in the filthy cell. A close up shows his face crawling with insects. The Fulton County Medical Examiner wrote, “The body is infested with an enormous number of small insects that are 2 mm in length.”
Michael Harper, attorney for Lashawn Thompson’s family, said in a statement, “The jail cell Mr. Thompson was housed in was not fit for a diseased animal.”
Harper appeared on the Democracy Now! news hour, joined by Shenita Thompson, Lashawn’s sister and Brad McCrae, his brother, in their first broadcast interview since going public with the gruesome details of their late brother’s suffering and death.
Brad McCrae spoke about the family’s decision to share the devastating photos with the public.
“I thought about Emmett Till,” Brad said. “It broke my heart to see those photos. 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…We want the world to wake up and make a change.”
He was invoking the memory of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was lynched on Aug. 28, 1955. He was dragged out of his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi, where his mother had sent him from Chicago for the summer. Days later, his brutally beaten, disfigured body, weighted down with a cotton gin fan tied to his body with barbed wire, was pulled from the Tallahatchie River.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, wanted the world to see what they had done to her son. She insisted on an open-casket funeral. Jet Magazine published a picture of Emmett in his casket with his distended, beaten head on the magazine’s cover, showing the world the ravages of racism, the brutality of bigotry.
“The jail knew that Lashawn Thompson had mental health issues in June of 2022,” family attorney Michael Harper said. “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 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.”
Harper continued, “Lashawn Thompson was a pretrial detainee. He had not been convicted of any crime.”
Last November, the Southern Center for Human Rights reported that the Fulton County Jail was “dangerously understaffed and overcrowded” and had an uncontained outbreak of lice and scabies. The ACLU issued a report analyzing Fulton County’s jail population. The ACLU found that Fulton County regularly jails people in pre-trial detention for longer than 90 days – some for over two years – when they haven’t even been charged with a crime, and that many of those people are held simply because they can’t afford bail.
Fulton County responded to the public revelations of Lashawn Thompson’s horrible death by moving 600 prisoners of the jail’s overcrowded population of close to 3,000, and Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat demanded the resignation of three top jail officials. County commissioners also approved $5 million for emergency improvements to the jail.
“A new jail is not going to stop neglectful detention officers from not caring for mentally ill people,” Michael Harper said.
Nor will it bring back Lashawn Thompson. Brad McCrae offered this hope in his brother’s memory:
“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.”