The United States of America should be embarrassed. Over the past few years, America’s jails and prisons have made headlines all over the country and all over the world. The takeaway from all of those headlines? The conditions in America’s jails and prisons are unforgivably horrifying. Yet our country’s leaders seem to be doing almost nothing about it.
In Georgia, a 35-year-old man was awaiting trial on a misdemeanor. He died after being eaten alive by insects and bed bugs in his Fulton County Jail cell.
Last week, a 35-year-old man named Lashawn Thompson died in the Fulton County Jail. He was eaten alive by insects and bed bugs while waiting for trial on a low-level misdemeanor charge. Fox News published a photo of the disgusting conditions in Mr. Thompson’s here. But a warning before you click that link: It’ll make you sick to your stomach. And it should.
According to this update from Fox News, Mr. Thompson’s death — or, perhaps more accurately, the media attention it got — clearly scared Fulton County Jail officials into action. The facility transferred more than 600 people from the facility shortly after the media picked up the story. The facility also released an emergency $500,000 expenditure to address its overcrowding.
In New York, people were crammed together on the floors at Rikers Island. Those floors were covered in rotten food, maggots, urine, feces, and blood.
Mr. Thompson’s death got (at least some of) the media attention it deserved. Hopefully, that media attention won’t result in only these short-term changes, including temporary transfers and emergency expenditures, but also long-term solutions to prevent this from happening in the future. Unfortunately, America’s track record for remedy the disgusting conditions in jails and prisons isn’t promising.
As the New York Post reported at the end of 2021, the conditions on Rikers Island are just as “hellish” and “deadly” as those that killed Mr. Thompson in the Fulton County Jail. The Post obtained images that included “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.”
“Dozens of men crammed together for days in temporary holding cells amid a pandemic,” the Post‘s story starts. “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.” But according to the Post‘s source, no one tried to fix it. “They knew what was going on and they did nothing.”
In California, people were chained to chairs for days at a time. They were also regularly denied clean water, functioning toilets, food, and medication.
We saw similarly “barbaric” conditions in the Los Angeles County jail in this story in the Los Angeles Times a year later. The conditions at that facility got so bad that a federal judge had to enter a court order prohibiting staff from handcuffing, chaining, or tethering people to chairs “or any other object” for more than four hours at a time “without first exhausting every other means.”
According to the LA Times, the ACLU alleged in that lawsuit that “[m]ost were people who had been recently arrested and not convicted and were routinely denied clean water, functioning toilets, showers, adequate food or medication to treat schizophrenia and other serious conditions….” The fact that a court order was required to ensure functioning toilets shows how bad things got.
It’s been said that a society should be judged based on how it treats its criminals. If that’s true, it’s pretty clear that the United States is failing.
Obviously, this article started with a blunt question: What the F*** is Happening in America’s Jails? As these three examples indicate, a lot. In Georgia, jail officials let bugs eat Mr. Thompson alive. In New York, jail officials let men sleep on filthy floors covered in rotten food, maggots, urine, feces, and blood. And in California, jail officials chained people to chairs for days at a time.
Fyodor Dostoevsky once said that “[a] society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.” In fact, according to Dostoevsky, “[t]he degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” And if you enter America’s jails or prisons, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be walking into a figurative and literal shithole.