Shelby County Commissioner shares outrage over 201 Poplar conditions

Published: Feb. 10, 2023 at 10:24 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Run-down. Short-staffed. And more dangerous than the most notorious jail in the country. The Shelby County Jail at 201 Poplar in Downtown Memphis surpassed Rikers Island last year in the percentage of inmates who died in custody.

The county jail is a pre-trial facility. The 2,300 inmates housed there have not had their day in court yet and are innocent until proven guilty. But with the Shelby County Court system moving like molasses on a cold winter’s day, many inmates wait months, even years for their cases to get resolved. The wait can be terrifying, and for some, deadly.

When 16 inmates died in a single year at New York’s Rikers Island in 2021, prison reform advocates and politicians called it a “humanitarian crisis.” 14 inmates died at the Shelby County Jail in 2022, and the jail’s population is less than half of Rikers’ 5,900 inmates. Yet there’s been no public outcry for change, accountability, or justice for Shelby County Jail.

“We need our citizens to get riled up about this,” Shelby County Commissioner Britney Thornton told Action News 5, “because the band-aid fixes aren’t working.”

Commissioner Thornton said she was shocked and appalled when she toured the Shelby County Jail last year. She saw leaky pipes, mold and rust, and inmates forced to stay locked up 23 hours a day because of staffing shortages.

”This facility did not look taken care of,” she said. “And to see people who were forced to live in it? For me, it felt like it would be triggering for mental health issues.” 33-year-old Gershun Freeman, the inmate who died last October after an altercation with guards, struggled with a probable psychotic disorder, according to the medical examiner’s autopsy report.

The Shelby County Medical Examiner ruled Freeman’s death a homicide, saying he suffered a cardiac arrest while being subdued by corrections officers.

His family and justice reform advocates struggle with the fact 201 Poplar is now more deadly than Rikers Island: with 14 deaths in 2022 and 10 deaths in 2021.

″It doesn’t matter what they’re charged with. It doesn’t matter how long they’re going to be there,” said Josh Spickler, Executive Director of justice reform non-profit Just City. “If we can’t keep them safe and healthy and protected while they’re there, then someone needs to answer for that. And that someone is the sheriff.”

John Morris, spokesperson for Sheriff Floyd Bonner and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, told Action News 5, “SCSO does not comment on an open and active investigation.” 

Morris did say that 20 new corrections deputies have been hired since last fall, and a new corrections deputy recruit class starts next week.

Former Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell warned it’s expensive to manage a jail, but more expensive to mismanage it.

“I think we need to look very closely at some of the operational procedures and the supervision and management of that jail,” said Luttrell. “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.”

And with the eyes of the world on Memphis right now, Commissioner Thornton said transparency and accountability are key.

“There has to be swift justice like we talked about with Tyre Nichols,” she said. “We need some justice, you know. If you kill someone, that needs to be something you’re held accountable for.”

Commissioner Thornton said she’s been told it would cost $700 million to build a new jail. But all the money and focus right now, she said, is on building a new hospital to improve care at Regional One.

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