Lashawn Thompson, 35, died on Sept. 13, 2022, at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, where he was found in a cell “eaten alive” by bedbugs and other insects, according to his family.
Thompson, who suffered from schizophrenia, was held in the jail’s psychiatric wing. He was arrested on June 12, 2022, for misdemeanor simple battery, according to the police report.
“Right now, there’s a criminal investigation that’s ongoing by the Fulton County District Attorney's Office. There’s a federal civil rights investigation going on with the Department of Justice,” Michael Harper, Thompson family attorney, told Yahoo News.
The family received Thompson’s body last year but couldn’t get answers from law enforcement officials as to why it was covered with gruesome scars and sores, some of which appeared to have been caused by an infestation of bugs.
“They were just told that he was found unresponsive in his cell,” Harper said, adding, “Not only did they lose their loved one, but they have to live with these images of his body and how he died and how he was found.”
‘Infested with bedbugs and lice’
Photos of Thompson’s body and his cell at the jail have sparked outrage and garnered international attention. “He was found on the floor of the jail infested with bedbugs and lice,” Harper explained. “He was neglected. He lost a lot of weight. He was dehydrated. It was just a horrible, awful death due to negligence.”
Gerald Griggs, an Atlanta attorney and president of the Georgia state conference of the NAACP, says the photos of Thompson shocked the world. “The cell looked like something out of a horror movie,” he told Yahoo News.
Thompson died three months after being booked into the Atlanta facility, which is one of the largest jails in the country and holds pretrial detainees.
“No one in that jail has been convicted of anything, so they should be treated as citizens who have only been accused of something,” Griggs said.
The jail is overcrowded, and 30% of those in custody are held because they are unable to pay a bond of $15,000 or less. Thompson’s bail was set at $2,500.
“When he died, the jail had an assessment done, which showed that over 90% of the people in the mental health pod had symptoms of severe malnutrition,” Moki Macias, executive director of the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative, told Yahoo News.
Last month, the Fulton County sheriff’s office announced that more than 600 inmates would be moved to jails in other counties to help alleviate the issue of overcrowding. Elected in 2020, Sheriff Pat Labat told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “the jail represents an old way of thinking.”
Labat has been outspoken about Thompson’s death. “We understand, and I have said this publicly, this is absolutely unconscionable, point blank,” he said at an April press conference held with Thompson’s family.
Three supervisors at the jail have since resigned, but advocates and local leaders say that’s not enough.
“It's great that this sheriff is apologizing,” Harper said. “That’s wonderful. It’s great that the commissioners are acting proactively for the future. But they all knew or certainly should have known about these conditions before Lashawn Thompson died. There has to be justice and accountability for what happened to him. Whoever was negligent in the case should be held responsible, both civilly and criminally.”
Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., is also demanding action and launched an inquiry last month whose goal is to increase oversight of jails nationwide.
“The Department of Justice has an affirmative obligation to safeguard the civil rights of incarcerated people, whether they are held in Federal, state, or local custody,” Ossoff wrote in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Additionally, the Federal government provides hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to state and local prisons and jails through an array of grant programs, including through the DOJ Bureau of Justice Assistance, and thus has the responsibility to oversee the use of those resources.”
Fixing a broken jail
Since Thompson’s death, the sheriff's office received an additional $5.3 million to provide upgrades at the jail. But activists are also demanding greater accountability.
“Our policing seems to just keep getting more money for bad behavior. Where are the funds going? Why are things not being improved?” Britt Jones, executive director of Justice for Georgia, told Yahoo News.
The Fulton County Board of Commissioners also approved an additional $869,893 for the continuation of a feasibility study, begun in 2021, that recommends the creation of a new Fulton County jail.
“The solution is not more jails and more incarceration; it is smarter, more sensible justice policies that will reduce the jail population,” Sakira Cook, a vice president at Color of Change, a racial justice organization, said in a statement.
Between 2009 and October 2022, 64 inmates died in the Fulton County Jail, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. In March, Labat gave reporters from the paper a tour of the facility and acknowledged that more than 50% of the inmates there were suffering from mental health conditions that the facility was unequipped to handle.
Macias says the system is failing communities nationwide. “It’s actually just moving some of our most vulnerable people into some of our most dangerous public facilities, which are local jails,” she said. “There is no reason that somebody who was arrested for a disturbance should be sitting in that jail for months on end, without the appropriate care, and without every agency involved doing their best to actually get that individual out of an overcrowded jail.”
Jones was one of the hundreds of people who have gathered to protest against the inhumane conditions at the jail. Thompson’s autopsy photos, she said, were the worst she has ever seen.
“I have had to go through many autopsy findings I’m talking about for the most gruesome of them all,” she added.
The medical examiner’s report lists Thompson’s cause of death as “undetermined.”
“Undetermined — it’s not a satisfactory answer when the medical examiner’s job is to determine the cause of death,” Harper said.
With Thompson’s death having attracted national news coverage, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has stepped in and paid for an independent autopsy, according to civil rights attorney Ben Crump.
“We’re waiting for those results. The doctor is working on it right now. We expect him to be done in a couple of weeks,” Harper said.
In the meantime, advocates say “more people will die if changes are not made at Fulton County Jail,” Macias said.