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Kaepernick To Fund Independent Autopsy for Atlanta Inmate Found Dead in Insect-Infested Cell

A record number of inmates are dying in Georgia's five largest county jails, and that Fulton County Jail has led the state in such deaths since 2009. Overcrowding and understaffing plague the facility, where around half of the more than 3,000 inmates have not been charged with any crime.

A man holds up a placard demanding justice for Lashawn Thompson, a mentally ill inmate who died in Georgia's Fulton County Jail, (Photo: ColorOfChange/Twitter)

Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump on Thursday said that former NFL quarterback and racial justice activist Colin Kaepernick will pay for an independent autopsy for Lashawn Thompson, a mentally ill man who died last September in a filthy, insect-infested cell in an overcrowded Atlanta jail.

Crump spoke at a rally and news conference outside the Fulton County Jail, where Thompson, who was arrested last June for alleged misdemeanor simple battery, was held for three months before his death.

"We want to thank Colin Kaepernick for helping this family get to the truth and soon," Crump said, flanked by Thompson's relatives.

"What happened to Lashawn Thompson is a human rights violation," the attorney added. "If we don't ask the questions and we don't get the answers and we don't get to the truth, then next time it could be your loved one. This isn't just about Lashawn Thompson. This is about every citizen in Fulton County, Georgia."

Thompson, who suffered from mental health issues, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and transferred to the jail's psychiatric wing. According to jail records, on September 13 an officer saw Thompson slumped over in his cell, which was so dirty that a staff member who entered it wore protective gear. Inside, Thompson lay dead with his eyes open, his body covered with what Crump said were over 1,000 insect bites. Thompson was 35 years old.

Jail records show that medical and correctional staff repeatedly noted—and voiced concerns about—Thompson's deteriorating health but did not help him.

"They literally watched his health decline until he died," Michael Harper, another attorney representing Thompson's family, said in a statement.

Harper asserted that Thompson "was found dead in a filthy jail cell after being eaten alive by insects and bed bugs."

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An official autopsy could not determine the cause of Thompson's death but noted an "extremely severe" insect infestation on his body.

"Can you imagine him screaming and him hollering, saying 'They biting, they biting' and nobody come," Thompson's aunt, Mamie Norman, said at Thursday's rally. "Nobody. Nobody. I still have no understanding until y'all find out what happened to him."

report obtained last year from NaphCare—an institutional healthcare services contractor repeatedly accused of neglect—revealed widespread medical negligence in Fulton County Jail's mental health unit, where more than 90% of inmates were so severely malnourished that they developed cachexia, a wasting syndrome often associated with diseases like advanced cancer or AIDS.

Additionally, "100% of inmates" in the unit "had either lice, scabies, or both."

Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat—who called Thompson's death "absolutely unconscionable"—earlier this week asked for and received the resignation of three top jail officials, including Chief Jailer John Jackson.

"It's clear to me that it's time, past time, to clean house," Labat said in a statement on Monday.

An October 2022 investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that a record number of inmates are dying in Georgia's five largest county jails, and that Fulton County Jail has led the state in such deaths since 2009.

Overcrowding and understaffing plague the facility, where around half of the more than 3,000 inmates have not been charged with any crime. Labat admitted that more than 400 inmates were sleeping on the floor because of overcrowding.

"The type of infestations that contributed to Mr. Thompson's death are going to be a recurring problem in a jail where hundreds of detainees do not have cells and have to sleep on the floor," the sheriff said on Thursday.

Sakira Cook, vice president of campaigns, policy, and government at the racial justice group Color of Change, said Thursday in a statement that "like Lashawn Thompson, countless individuals are currently enduring completely inhumane conditions at the severely overcrowded Fulton County Jail—often waiting for months at a time for frequently minor offenses and small amounts of cash bail."

"This must end. Despite years of scrutiny, the neglect and inhumane conditions within the jail have persisted, with little to no meaningful changes in prosecutorial practices or conditions," Cook added. "The current dark reality of mass incarceration is not accidental, but rather the consequence of intentional policies crafted by a dominant white culture that perpetuates and profits from the suppression of Black individuals through the jailing system."

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), who chairs the Senate Human Rights Subcommittee, announced the launch of an inquiry into conditions of incarceration in Georgia and nationwide. Previous Ossoff-led probes of U.S. carceral conditions revealed nearly 1,000 uncounted deaths, widespread sexual crimes, corruption, abuse, and misconduct at prisons and jails across the nation.

According to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, there are nearly 2 million people locked up in U.S. prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the past 40 years and more than any other country in the world, by far.

Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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