Shelby County Commissioners Angry Over 201 Poplar Conditions

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) – It happened. Short shots. And more dangerous than the most notorious prison in the country. Shelby County’s 201 Polar Jail in downtown Memphis surpassed Rikers Island last year in the percentage of inmates who died in custody.

Regional prison is a pre-trial institution. The 2,300 prisoners housed there have not yet had their day in court 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 or even years for their cases to be resolved. The wait can be terrifying and for some, deadly.

When 16 inmates died a 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. However, there has been no public outcry for change, accountability or justice at the Shelby County Jail.

“We need our citizens to be upset about this,” Shelby County Commissioner Brittney Thornton told Action News 5, “because the banning fix is ​​not going to work.”

Commissioner Thornton said he was shocked and appalled when he visited the Shelby County Jail last year. He saw pipes, mold and rust, and inmates were forced to stay in the jail 23 hours a day due to understaffing.

“This facility has not been maintained,” he said. “And to see the people who are forced to live in it?” For me, it felt like it was causing mental health issues. ” Gershun Freeman, 33, the inmate who died last October following a fight with guards, was battling a suspected mental illness, according to a medical examiner’s report.

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

His family and justice reform advocates are fighting the fact that 201 Poplar is now deadlier than Rikers Island: 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 the justice reform nonprofit Just City. “If we can’t keep them safe and sound and protected while they’re there, then somebody has to answer for that. And that person is the sheriff.”

John Morris, spokesman for Sheriff Floyd Bonner and the Shelby County Shelby Office, told Action News 5, “SCSO does not comment on open and active investigations.”

Morris said 20 new corrections deputies have been hired since last fall, and a new corrections intake class will start next week.

Former Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell warned that running a jail is expensive, but mismanaging it is even more expensive.

“I think we need to take a hard look at some of the operating procedures and the oversight and management of this prison,” Luttrell said. “If you don’t have good management, then you will have problems. There are constitutional requirements in that prison, and if they are not met, lives will be lost.”

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

“There needs to be swift justice, as we talked about with Tyre Nichols,” he said. “We need justice, you know. If you kill someone, that should be something you take responsibility for. “

Commissioner Thornton said he was told it would take $700 million to build a new prison. But all the money and focus right now, he said, is to build a new hospital to improve care in the Region.

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