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Letter to the Editor: Let’s stop this from happening in our jail

Thirty-five-year-old Lashawn Thompson was found dead in his cell on September 19, 2022. “The body is infested with an enormous number of small insects that are 2 mm in length.” Thompson’s cause of death is listed as “undetermined” listed in the autopsy. “The Fulton County Jail has been understaffed and mismanaged for decades, leading to multiple lawsuits and consent decrees, but the problems have been particularly acute in recent months as Fulton County Sheriff Labat has failed to maintain even existing staff. On September 21st, Labat stated that he had lost more staff than he was able to hire, and as of October 10th there were at least 155 staff vacancies.” Ten inmates died in the past year. https://www.democracynow.org/2023/4/18/lashawn_thompson_atlanta_jail_eaten_alive

Lashawn Thompson was a man diagnosed with Schizophrenia detained in the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia on a misdemeanor charge awaiting trial. Unable to post bail, he survived only three months of medical and physical neglect. The sheriff has since moved 600 inmates and vowed to build a new jail, but would a new jail that is not staffed adequately have prevented a mentally ill man from dying of neglect? Probably not.

I spent my first year as an intern working towards my LCSW as an MSW graduate at California State Prison, Sacramento in the Psychiatric Services Unit (PSU). We half-jokingly referred to the unit as one step up from Pelican Bay death row. The amount of staffing required to adequately run this unit was striking; Psychiatrists, psychologists, LCSWs, nursing staff, LPNs, recreation therapists all meeting with inmates throughout the day. 24-hour monitoring of those with suicide ideation/homicidal ideation/self-harm tendencies, adjustment of medications, brief therapy, group therapy all under the watchful eye of correctional staff for safety. Indeed, I worked with some of the worst offenders deemed mentally ill and can attest that they were not neglected. It was a well-organized and well-orchestrated program (as was necessary.) Correctional officers were well paid and enjoyed the benefit of overtime which they took advantage of. Monitoring and cell checks were continuous. Neglect was/is not an option.

The thing to remember is that these inmates originated from jails, and regardless of new jail or an old jail, if you don’t have adequate staffing, you cannot adequately care for your inmates. How long will it take before Plumas County fails to provide necessary care to their inmates due to lack of staffing? How long will it take before the county experience lawsuits because of neglect? I don’t think it is overreaching to think that some inmates here suffer from mental illness and/or physical illness and that the current situation at the PCSO could indeed lead to a bad outcome. Even staff and inmates possibly being hurt. Again, priorities matter. Let’s pay these people more than $18.98 starting pay (minus cost of health insurance) and get the staffing level up.

Kathy Wickman

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