ATLANTA (CN) — Lashawn Thompson was found dead inside an Atlanta jail covered with thousands of bed bug bites, some even up his nose and in his eyes, after medical staff failed to check on him for days, his family’s attorney Ben Crump said in a press conference outside of the jail Thursday afternoon.
The prominent civil rights lawyer, who has also represented the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, along with Atlanta-based attorney Michael Harper are demanding external investigations and answers from the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office on why Thompson was left to die on Sept. 19, 2022.
While the county medical examiner noted a severe bed bug infestation, Thompson’s cause of death was listed as "undetermined." His family claims an infection from the bites led to his death. Graphic images released of Thompson’s body covered in bugs and the filthy, deteriorating cell of the psychiatric unit he was held in have drawn national attention to the Fulton County Jail, which has been under fire locally over worsening conditions for several years.
Sheriff Patrick Labat said an internal investigation is underway, as well as one being conducted by the Atlanta Police Department, and that their results will be sent over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. As part of that investigation, the sheriff’s office approved $500,000 to improve sanitation efforts and address the infestation of bed bugs and lice at the jail.
Shortly after the launch of the investigation, the jail's medical contractor, Birmingham-based NaphCare, decided to pull out of its agreement with the county for providing inmate health care.
At Labat’s request, county commissioners also approved $5.4 million in funding for inmate health tracking, cameras and other upgrades, as Crump and Harper warn of a coming lawsuit. Last year, the commission approved a $1.2 million contract to assess the construction of a new, larger jail, but the price tag is about $2 billion.
Despite the sheriff’s recent actions and appearance alongside Thompson’s family and counsel to acknowledge his accountability on Thursday, some say that he is too late in addressing an issue that has been simmering to a boiling point with his knowledge for years.
Tiffany Roberts with the Southern Center For Human Rights said the group has successfully sued the jail four times over uninhabitable conditions at the jail and overcrowding. In July 2019, a judge ordered the sheriff to take immediate steps to remedy the jail’s unlawful conditions and use of solitary confinement in the center’s lawsuit on behalf of a putative class of women with serious mental illness who were held in “torturous” conditions of solitary confinement for over 23 hours a day and forced to lay in their own fecal matter, blood and toilet water.
Lashawn Thompson was found dead last September, over four years later after that court order.
“He knew what was happening,” Roberts said of the sheriff. “How dare he pat the family’s backs, just to transfer the problem to another jail.”
Many protesters held signs outside the jail Thursday that called for Labat's resignation instead of the construction of a new jail.
Thompson was one of 64 inmates who died in the Fulton County Jail between 2009 and October 2022, the most of any Georgia jail during that time.
Around 4,200 people booked in the jail between January and October last year were only charged with misdemeanors, according to a study ordered by city and county officials as part of the agreement to lease additional jail beds. Over 3,400 people were charged with offenses eligible for diversion.
Although the jail’s capacity is for 2,688 detainees, it was holding 3,297 in March, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs records. Nearly all of them – 3,028 – were awaiting trial.
Thompson awaited trial for three months after being arrested on simple battery misdemeanor charges. Labat said that his court date had been rescheduled “eight or nine times.”
The 35-year-old was diagnosed with schizophrenia and came to Atlanta from Winter Haven, Florida. He wound up first encountering police when they saw him sleeping outside in a park last June. Georgia Tech officers found a warrant for his arrest in Dothan, Alabama, on a 2017 car theft charge and arrested Thompson for simple battery after he allegedly spat on one of them.
On Monday, Labat announced that over the weekend he had asked for and accepted the resignations of chief jailer John Jackson and assistant chief jailers Derrick Singleton and Adam Lee.
Civil rights advocates and families with incarcerated loved ones who came to protest in front of the jail Thursday expressed concern and anger that the jailers were not fired and are able to retain their certifications upon resigning.
Thompson's younger sister Shanita Thompson and brother Brad McCrae said they made repeated calls to the jail to find out why their sibling died but were continuously left with no answers. They said they were forced to reach out to Harper and Crump to get any response back from the sheriff's office.
Gerald Griggs, the president of Georgia's NAACP, also spoke and described how the Fulton County Jail is the state's largest mental health facility. He said deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement happen too often in what is "the birth place of civil rights."
"If we don't get the truth, next time it could be your loved one," said Crump.
"Martin Luther King wrote his letter from the Birmingham jail, now 60 years later I don't think he could've wrote it from the Fulton County Jail," he added.Follow @@Megwiththenews
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.