Former President Donald Trump, the Republican presidential primary frontrunner, is currently indicted in four jurisdictions. Being out on bail hasn’t stopped him from gaining even more momentum, further expanding his double-digit lead over his Republican primary rivals.
But Trump’s command over conservative voters isn’t surprising at all. What is interesting and new is that Trump’s indictment in Fulton County, Georgia, has led to long-overdue coverage of the horrid state of the Fulton County Jail. Rice Street, as the Fulton County Jail is known locally, is a lockup notorious for its squalid (sometimes deadly) conditions.
Last September, Lashawn Thompson, a 35-year-old suffering from mental illness and jailed on a misdemeanor charge died while locked up there. He was essentially eaten alive by insects and bed bugs, while in custody, in America.
An independent autopsy report found that the cause of Thompson’s death was “complications due to severe neglect,” among other factors that included untreated schizophrenia, dehydration, malnutrition, and severe body insect infestation—after being exposed to bed bugs, lice, and other pests for months.
Famed civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump represented Thompson’s family in a suit against the county alleging Thompson’s death was a combination of jail staff “inaction, cruelty, and inhumanity.” Thompson’s death was ruled a homicide. And Fulton County Commissioners voted unanimously to award Thompson’s family $4 million.
In July, the Department of Justice Department announced an investigation into the Fulton County Jail. No doubt the investigation was triggered by the images and the outcry for justice in the wake of Thompson’s death, but he’s far from the only one who faced that fate.
Montay Stinson languished in the Fulton County Jail for nearly a year not being able to afford his $3,000 bail. He was found unresponsive and died in his cell earlier this month. Noni Battiste-Kosoko was found dead in her cell this past July. Since January 2022, at least 18 people have died in Fulton County custody, according to the ACLU of Georgia.
Donald Trump will report to this very same jail today. But Trump won’t spend a night in the infamous jail. He won’t experience the jail conditions that cost Thompson, Stinson, Battiste-Kosoko, and 15 others their lives.
Trump will be fingerprinted, have his height and weight measured, a photo taken, and his $200,000 bail paid with ease. Regardless of the jail conditions at Fulton County, Trump won’t experience them—Black, Brown and indigent people will. That is the case of wealth and power in America.
“There is a two-tiered justice system that persists in our city,” Christopher Bruce, the Policy Director of the ACLU of Georgia told me. “Last year we condemned prosecutors and judges for unnecessarily holding people on low level offenses simply because they are too poor to afford bond. Trump will turn himself in with bond already being set, but time and time again Black people who are charged with RICO have their bond denied and are forced [to] suffer the intolerable conditions at Rice Street indefinitely.”
The pretrial cash bail system in America by its design is predatory, an attack on the poor and no one else. Cash bail doesn’t protect communities. It dismantles them, taking moms, fathers, and siblings out of the community, out of their homes, away from their jobs, before they have been convicted of any crime.
If they could pay, they could go home. But since so many cannot afford to buy their freedom, jails across the country are dangerously overcrowded. Trump and other wealthy elites can dish out cash without much disruption to their daily lives, but for poor people job loss, housing loss, and family separation create the perfect storm of ruined lives.
The movement to end cash bail took off in the wake of Kalief Browder’s wrongful incarceration at New York City’s Riker’s Island jail, and his subsequent suicide.
Organizations like the ACLU, Pretrial Justice Institute, NAACP, and National Urban League enlisted attorneys, advocates, and community leaders across the country to spotlight the crisis of cash bail—and who are the most affected by a system that makes wealth a determining factor for who is eligible to return to home and who isn’t.
Bipartisan-sponsored pretrial and bail reforms have passed in places like Georgia, New Jersey, and other areas. Most notably, in July, Illinois became the first state to eliminate cash bail as a condition for pretrial release. In a nation that over-incarcerates, upending a system that in effect eliminates the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” is a must.
To state it plainly, three out of five people in U.S. jails today haven’t been convicted of anything. That means half a million people are sitting in jails while being legally innocent of crimes they’ve been charged with. To add fuel to the fire, according to the Prison Policy Initiative over 40 percent of people in jails and prisons have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
Bruce added, “Until there is equal justice, regardless of the race or wealth of a defendant, there cannot be meaningful change to the systemic oppression inherent to the existing criminal legal system.”
The evidence is clear, cash bail is not an effective system. Jails disproportionately incarcerate poor people, Black and Brown people, those with mental illness, and the indigent. Low-staffing, lax oversight, and overcrowding are a recipe for disaster in America’s jails, yet Republicans continue to push their “tough on crime” mantra, fighting against any reforms like ending cash bail.
In an election year with the Republican primary heir apparent Donald Trump facing 91 felony charges, Trump doesn’t need to worry about criminal justice reforms. Why would he? Regardless of the jurisdiction he’s charged in, as a wealthy and powerful white man, he can avoid being victimized by the types of failures the justice system regularly doles out to people lacking Trump’s privilege.
Money talks, and without it in America, “innocent until proven guilty” is as real as the tooth fairy or the Easter Bunny.