Family wants federal investigation after man's death in Fulton jail

The family of Lashawn Thompson hosts a press conference and rally at Fulton County Jail. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

The family of a man who died in a bedbug-infested cell in a Georgia jail’s psychiatric wing is calling for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the facility.

Lashawn Thompson, 35, died in September, three months after being booked into the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Thompson’s family, called for those responsible for his death to be held accountable.

“What you’re looking at, I think, is not just a deplorable jail cell, but this is a crime scene. This is criminal,” Crump said as he held up a photo of Thompson’s dirty, trash-strewn cell during a news conference and rally Thursday in front of the jail.

Photos of the cell and of Thompson’s face and body covered in insects sparked outrage last week when they spread on social media after his family’s local attorney, Michael Harper, released them to news outlets. The medical examiner’s report lists Thompson’s cause of death as “undetermined” but notes a “severe bed bug infestation.”

Crump called for local leaders to be held accountable, including the sheriff, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners and the Atlanta City Council, repeating the slogan, “We ain’t gonna let you pass the baton. Justice for Lashawn.” He urged local activists to attend an upcoming county board of commissioners meeting to demand answers about Thompson’s death.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat who chairs the Senate Human Rights Subcommittee, announced Thursday that he is launching a new inquiry into conditions of incarceration in Georgia and across the country. He cited news reports last week about Thompson’s death and the death of Joshua McLemore, a 29-year-old with a history of mental illness who died of multiple organ failure in August 2021 at an Indiana jail.

Harper has said jail staff did nothing to address Thompson’s deteriorating health in the weeks before his death and has called for a criminal investigation. Thompson had been arrested June 12 on a misdemeanor battery charge.

Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat met with Thompson’s family Thursday and spoke alongside them at the news conference outside the jail.
“We understand, and I have said this publicly, this is absolutely unconscionable, point blank,” Labat said.

Labat said that once investigations into Thompson’s death — an internal one by his office and another by the Atlanta Police Department — are complete, they will be turned over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Since Thompson’s death became public last week, Labat has expressed his condolences to the family and had three top jail officials resign. He announced Wednesday that he had secured an additional $5.3 million from the county board of commissioners to provide upgrades at the jail, including increased monitoring in the psychiatric and medical units and more frequent high-level sanitation of those units.

Critics — including some who yelled questions and accusations at Labat during the news conference — have said Labat didn’t act until the conditions surrounding Thompson’s death became public. And they allege Labat, who took office in January 2021, is using Thompson’s death to bolster his push for a new jail when they say he has long failed to address serious chronic problems at the current jail.

Tiffany Roberts, public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which advocates for humane jail conditions, said the nonprofit law firm has successfully sued the county four times over conditions at the jail but has seen little improvement.

“How dare this sheriff stand with a grieving family, pat their backs, make platitudes while he is asking for $2 billion to transfer this problem to a larger and more expensive facility,” she said during the news conference. “How long will we hide from the reality that Fulton County is chronically dysfunctional and there is no humanity in a system like this?”