‘Dogs in a cage’: Former inmate shares concerns over conditions at 201 Poplar

201 Poplar inmate rights concern.
Published: Sep. 21, 2022 at 10:57 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - No water. No contact with family. No access to medical care. A former Shelby County jail inmate said the conditions inside 201 Poplar aren’t safe, and he believes inmates’ rights are being violated.

County lock-up is supposed to be a temporary holding facility for most of the 2,300 inmates who are currently awaiting their day in court. But all too often, that wait turns to weeks, months, and even years. In recent days, Action News 5 has received numerous emails from family members and recently released inmates complaining about what they describe as dangerous conditions inside the jail.

“It’s absolutely inhumane to treat people the way they treat them down there,” said Jessie Foster, “some of these people aren’t even in there for anything serious. It’s absolutely wrong.”

Foster just spent six days at 201 Poplar after being arrested on an aggravated assault charge. He said inmates weren’t allowed to shower or make phone calls, and he was denied access to his asthma inhaler.

“You’re like a couple dogs in a cage,” he told Action News 5, “me and this old man were asking to get showers, and they kept telling us different excuses. We were told there’s no hot water. We were told there’s not enough people or there’s too many people. I spent six days in there and never got a shower.”

Josh Spickler, Executive Director of Just City, a non-profit working to reform the criminal justice system, said the county’s new bail process, ensuring a bail hearing no more than three days after someone’s arrested, should ease some of the pressure at 201. “There are major staffing problems at the jail,” Spickler said, “that is not undisputed. The courts and county have agreed to a new process for determining bail. So hopefully, in the next 6 to 18 months,, the jail population will decrease. If we do it right, it absolutely should.” Newly-elected Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy told Action News 5 that there are nearly 500 cases awaiting trial. Spickler said the criminal court system needs to be more expedient.

“COVID certainly slowed us down,” he said, “but we have managed COVID in our community as most communities in America have, and it’s time to get this system moving again.”

Shelby County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer John Morris told Action News 5:

“It is true that showers and phone usage were limited last Saturday and last Sunday, and they were limited to one floor. Those issues have been reviewed and addressed. Medical care is available 24/7. The care is free to all detainees. Their demand may cause some with non-emergency matters to wait longer than they would like, but care is being provided around the clock.”

Jessie Foster said he would like the incarcerated to be treated with a little more dignity. “They shouldn’t treat anybody…guilty or not…that way, no matter what they do. You should not.”

Just City joined the ACLU of Tennessee and the ACLU Foundation in filing a lawsuit over the jail conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Random, independent jail inspections were ordered as part of a consent decree. When the details of the most recent inspection are released, Action News 5 will post that information online.

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