If Jails Can’t Care for Prisoners, Prisoners Should Walk Free

            Prisoners are the ultimate wards of the state, which exerts complete control over every facet of their lives. Among the government’s responsibilities to their most vulnerable charges are its duties to provide inmates with adequate nutrition, housing, security and medical care, the latter of which has been codified by two landmark Supreme Court rulings. In the first of these decisions, Estelle v. Gamble (1972), the Court held that prison authorities who deliberately refuse to address the medical needs of an prisoner constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution and that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain’…proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.”

            The death of Lashawn Thompson fits this description to a T.

            While awaiting trial on a misdemeanor case of battery last summer, Thompson, 35, was remanded to Fulton County jail in Atlanta, in the psychiatric wing, because he was behaving erratically. “Three months later Mr. Thompson was found dead in a filthy jail cell after being eaten alive by insects and bed bugs,” according to family attorney Michael Harper, who posted nauseating photos of  Thompson’s squalid cell on Facebook. “Jail records obtained via Georgia’s Open Records Requests establish that the detention officers and medical staff at the jail noticed that Mr. Thompson was deteriorating, but did nothing to administer aid to him or to help him.”

            Thompson’s face and torso are seen covered in bugs.

Michael Potter, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky who specializes in bed bugs said he’d never seen anything “quite to this level” but confirmed that prolonged exposure to a large number of bed bugs can cause fatal anemia if untreated. “Bed bugs feed on blood and very large numbers of bed bugs feed on very large amounts of blood,” Potter said.

“It’s no secret that the dilapidated and rapidly eroding conditions of the current facility make it incredibly difficult to meet the goal of providing a clean, well-maintained and healthy environment for all inmates and staff,” the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, said in a statement. Appalling conditions have been an ongoing, unaddressed problem for years—and not just in Atlanta.

Joshua Lemore, a 29-year-old Indiana man who struggled with schizophrenia, was arrested for pulling a nurse’s hair at the hospital where he’d been taken for a wellness check in 2021. He was locked in solitary confinement— a barbaric practice mostly banned in Europe—without human contact or medical care. He didn’t eat, no one checked on him and he starved to death 20 days later. The total lack of psychological help for a detainee in mental-health crisis wasn’t unusual: “The [Jackson County] jail was cited in 2019, 2020 and June 2021 by the Indiana Department of Corrections for being out of compliance with a state law requiring it to arrange for 24-hour emergency psychological care,” according to USA Today.

            Also in 2021, Larry Price Jr. joined the long list of mentally-ill prisoners arrested for minor offenses who die of neglect and abuse in American jails and prisons. A homeless schizophrenic, the 51-year-old Arkansas man had entered a police station where he rambled threats against cops and made his hand into the shape of a gun: “terroristic threatening in the first degree,” according to the district attorney. Price “was found by guards lying in a pool of his own urine and contaminated water, unresponsive in August 2021 after having been detained for more than a year,” ABC News reported, “his once 6-foot-2-inch, 185-pound frame emaciated down to 121 pounds, according to the Arkansas State Crime Lab.” The Lab determined he had died of hunger and thirst.

            The Bill of Rights and a pair of Supreme Court rulings are supposed to prevent these outrages—but those aren’t enough. Of the tens of thousands of Americans who perish behind bars each year, many alleged having been denied medical care or adequate food. Prisons that outsource inmate healthcare to for-profit outside contractors have even higher death rates.

            Each year of incarceration takes two years off average life expectancy.

If government refuses or cannot afford to provide for the basic needs of people accused or convicted of a crime, which obviously includes access to healthcare and sanitary conditions, it should not be in the imprisonment business. We need a federal law that allows a prisoner suffering inhumane conditions, and their family members and lawyers, with a right to file an emergency ex parte petition for immediate release.

If the conditions are determined to be systemic and facility-wide, the entire operation should be shut down at once. That’s the case where I live in New York, at the city jail on Riker’s Island. After “years of mismanagement and neglect”—the Department of Corrections’ own spokesman’s words—a 2021 New York Post exposé found “as many as 26 men stuffed body to body in single cells where they were forced to relieve themselves inside plastic bags and take turns sleeping on the fetid floors.” Despite an annual $1.2 billion budget, “Dozens of men crammed together for days in temporary holding cells amid a pandemic. Filthy floors sullied with rotten food, maggots, urine, feces and blood. Plastic sheets for blankets, cardboard boxes for beds and bags that substituted for toilets.” Nothing has improved since.

            Lest you worry that American streets would suddenly be filled with released murderers and rapists, chill. One out of four prisoners is there for the terrifying crime of violating parole. Another one out of five is awaiting trial or serving time for a misdemeanor or civil infraction.

As for the rest? We’re not poor. Assuming we still want to incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country but China, cities, states and the federal government will find the money to create a prison-industrial complex that doesn’t feed American citizens to swarms of biting insects.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)