Advocates unsurprised, but outraged, by death at 201 Poplar

Published: Oct. 7, 2022 at 10:18 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - No transparency. Little accountability. Those who fight for an improved criminal justice system in the Mid-South said the Shelby County Jail has reached rock bottom.

From meeting basic healthcare needs to providing proper supervision and security, prison reform advocates said Wednesday’s death of an inmate inside 201 Poplar was a tragedy waiting to happen.

In the weeks leading up to this jail death, Action News 5 interviewed inmates who described terrible conditions inside county lock-up, including no access to showers or to telephones to call family, and slow access to medical care.

Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner recently confirmed the jail, currently housing around 2,300 inmates, is severely understaffed, with more than 300 deputy jailer positions available. But criminal justice reform advocates said that’s only part of the problem.

Josh Spickler, Executive Director of Just City, a non-profit whose goal is to reform the way inmates are treated from arrest to incarceration to the court room, told Action News 5 he is not surprised to hear 33-year-old inmate Gershun Freeman was killed in the jail this week.

“The Shelby County jail is a dangerous place,” said Spickler, “For another death to happen, especially a violent death…and from what we’re hearing potentially at the hands of a guard or multiple guards…definitely not surprised, but completely outraged. This is not the first time this has happened this year, and it won’t be the last, probably. And it’s certainly not the last under the current sheriff’s administration.”

Freeman entered 201 Poplar on Saturday, October 1, charged with aggravated kidnapping and aggravated assault. His ex-girlfriend told Memphis Police he attacked her outside his apartment, “punched her several times in the face” then “dragged her by her hair and forced her in the vehicle.” Her affidavit of complaint said Freeman drove her to a U-Haul business on Austin Peay Highway and “told her he was going to kill her and place her in an empty U-Haul truck.” She told police he pulled her out of the car by her hair while “kicking her in the ribs.”

Gershun Freeman
Gershun Freeman(George Burks)

The woman said Freeman left her with two broken teeth, bruising on her face, a bite on her nose and bruised ribs.

Freeman’s wife told Action News 5 on Thursday, despite the serious charges, her husband didn’t deserve a violent death inside the jail, and they’re desperate for answers.

”This has been our own investigation. No one has said anything,” said Nicole Freeman, “No one has confirmed anything. No one has said he’s no longer in our custody. Just no information at all.”

When Action News 5 asked on Friday, two days after Freeman’s death, how many deputy jailers had been suspended or fired after the incident, a Shelby County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said: “All of this is still under investigation.”

The TBI is now in charge of the investigation, and is communicating with the Freeman family.

“Our team has had direct contact with Mr. Freeman’s father and he has contact information to reach us if he any questions moving forward,” said TBI spokesperson Josh DeVine. “As with any case, we will share information with the family as we can, but it will take some time to determine exactly what happened in this case.”

Just City’s Spickler said his organization has questions, too.

“I’m encouraged the TBI has taken over the investigation because as members of the media and the public know, it’s very difficult to get information when things like this happen. The family is owed answers. The community is owed answers,” said Spickler. “These are our public servants caring for people who are being accused of crimes, and they’re not doing their job.”

Just City was among several organizations and attorneys who filed a class action lawsuit against the jail during the pandemic to make sure the inmates received proper care. Independent inspections are part of that settlement. Action News 5 is awaiting the results of the most recent inspection.

This July, a state law that Just City helped pass in the Tennessee legislature last year, went into effect. It requires more transparency and accountability in how jail deaths are reported to the state. Spickler also said bail reform measures being worked on right now will eventually help reduce the population inside the Shelby County jail, which would, said Spickler, help make the jail a safer place.

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