Run-down. Short-staffed. And riskier than any maximum-security prison in the country. In terms of the percentage of detainees who died while in jail, last year the Shelby County Jail at 201 Poplar in Downtown Memphis exceeded Rikers Island. Pretrial detention occurs at the county jail. Until they’ve been found guilty in a court of law, the 2,300 inmates who are being held there are presumed innocent.
Many offenders wait months or even years for their cases to be completed because the Shelby County Court system moves like molasses on a chilly winter’s day. Being forced to wait is terrifying and, in some cases, fatal. In 2021, 16 convicts died on New York’s Rikers Island, prompting calls for jail reform and political declarations of a “humanitarian crisis.”
The Shelby County Jail saw 14 inmate deaths in 2022, and its population was less than half of Rikers’ at that time, at 3,900. There has been no call for reform, responsibility, or fair treatment at Shelby County Jail. Shelby County Commissioner Britney Thornton told Action News 5,
“We need our citizens to get riled up about this,”
“because the band-aid fixes aren’t working.”
Commissioner Thornton expressed shock and outrage after seeing the Shelby County Jail in 2017. She observed broken fixtures, the growth of mould and rust, and detainees who had to spend 23 hours a day in their cells due to a lack of staff.
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”This facility did not look taken care of,”
“And to see people who were forced to live in it? For me, it felt like it would be triggering for mental health issues.”
A 33-year-old inmate died in a conflict with guards in October of last year. The medical examiner’s postmortem report concluded that Freeman had struggled with a possible mental condition. The medical examiner for Shelby County determined that Freeman was murdered because he experienced cardiac arrest while being restrained by prison guards.
With 14 deaths in 2022 and 10 deaths in 2021, 201 Poplar is now deadlier than Rikers Island, a statistic that has caused great distress for his family and justice reform campaigners.
It makes no difference what they’re being accused of. If they’re going to stay there for a long time, it doesn’t matter, according to Josh Spickler, director of the non-profit organization Just City working to overhaul the judicial system. Someone has to take responsibility if we fail to ensure their health and safety in that location.
“And that somebody is the sheriff.”
“SCSO does not comment on an open and active investigation,”
John Morris, a spokesman for Sheriff Floyd Bonner and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, said.
According to Morris, 20 new prison deputies have been hired since the autumn, and a new class of recruits will begin training next week. Managing a jail costs money, but mismanaging a jail costs far more, as former Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell warned.
“I think we need to look very closely at some of the operational procedures and the supervision and management of that jail,”
“If you don’t have good management then you’re going to have problems. There are constitutional requirements in that jail, and if they’re not met, then people’s lives will be lost.”
Additionally, Commissioner Thornton stated that openness and responsibility are essential with the eyes of the world currently focused on Memphis.
“There has to be swift justice like we talked about with Tyre Nichols,”
“We need some justice, you know. If you kill someone, that needs to be something you’re held accountable for.”
A new jail, according to Commissioner Thornton, would cost $700 million. She stressed that at this time, all efforts and resources are being put into expanding and modernizing Regional One Hospital.