Lashawn Thompson: The US’ inhumane & racist prison system
Joe Biden has now formally announced plans to run for a second term as US president. While many are piping up about his apparent achievements, not much is being reported about the current mess that is the US’ prison system, and the fact that the 46th president has done next to nothing to rectify the situation.
The US, which claims to be the ‘land of the free’ accounts for around 25% of the world’s total prison number, despite representing only 5% of the world’s population. And Joe Biden has helped create the current epidemic of US imprisonment, which has seen numbers swell to the millions in recent years.
It’s now been widely acknowledged that Biden’s infamous 94’ Crime Bill helped pave the way for mass incarceration as we know it, and this reality has had a direct and devastating impact on black Americans.
''The treatment of indigenous prisoners, who have been persecuted in their own land since the beginning of European colonisation, is also a huge overlooked problem within the current system. Leonard Peltier, one of the US’ longest serving indigenous prisoners, is a prime example of this.''
While officially accounting for approximately 13% of the total US population, black Americans represent almost half of the country’s total prison population. That total number, which covers both private and state prisons, is close to a staggering two and a half million people.
Studies have also shown that black Americans are much more likely to receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as their white counterparts, are disproportionately impacted by violent policing, and experience systemic racism within the criminal justice system as a whole.
Indicative of this reality too is the fact that black and non-white communities account for higher rates of custody deaths which include incarcerated inmates. Studies have also shown that around half of US prisoners, of which black people represent a disproportionally high number, have a mental illness.
All of this has helped create the conditions for arguably one of the worst custody deaths in a US prison. Indeed, Lashawn Thompson’s case presents a grotesque breach of the human rights.
A 35-year-old black American man with mental illness, Thompson was an inmate at Fulton County Jail in Atlanta who died last year in unimaginable circumstances. He was being held on a misdemeanour charge and whilst awaiting trial he was found dead in September 2022 in a filthy and squalid jail cell with wounds and lacerations all over his body.
Lashawn Thompson was found dead in the Fulton County jail last year with bed bugs and insects covering his body.— Rebecca J. Kavanagh (@DrRJKavanagh) April 14, 2023
Jail staff had noticed his health was deteriorating and done nothing to help him. When a guard found his body she refused to administer CPR because she "freaked out." pic.twitter.com/FTjK4800uL
According to news reports, Thompson had been bitten to death by bed bugs and insects and left to die, despite prison officials noting his declining condition. Family attorney Michael Harper confirmed that "Lashawn Thompson died with his eyes open. It is documented in the medical records... they saw him declining and did nothing."
Lawyer Ben Crump, also representing the family said that Thompson had been found to have over 1000 bites across his body and was infested with insects from head to toe when discovered.
Reports say that Thompson’s state was so awful, that one of the first correctional officers to enter his cell refused to go near Thompson and “freaked out”.
The images of Thompson’s body and jail cell have rightly sent shock waves around the world and amplified demands for drastic prison reform in the United States.
Thompson was literally left to die, tortured to death by wilful neglect in the most unimaginable conditions which were completely avoidable. This is a case which in an ideal world would spur any decent president and government into action. Biden however, who helped manufacture the situation which produced the death of Thompson, and who will now seek to court black voters, has been a lame duck when it comes to the black community and prison reform.
As of writing, he has made no statement even condemning the death of Thompson. But this horrific story should mean that the question of prison reform is prioritised in the upcoming election, and Biden must be held accountable for his failures. Excuses made by liberal apologists on his behalf will no longer stand.
Before he goes begging, cap in hand once more to black voters, he needs to offer something tangible and a plan to fix the mess he created. It’s beyond the pale, and highly hypocritical for a candidate known for stating “you ain’t black” if you don’t vote for Biden, to seek re-election and support from a black base that he otherwise neglects the rest of the time.
On the other hand, the abandonment and abuse of black and non-white communities within the US prison system, and continued human rights abuses in notorious prisons like Rikers Island where over a dozen inmates died in just 1 year, is entirely consistent with how the United States has always operated.
The treatment of indigenous prisoners, who have been persecuted in their own land since the beginning of European colonisation, is also a huge overlooked problem within the current system. Leonard Peltier, one of the US’ longest serving indigenous prisoners, is a prime example of this. Human rights groups like Amnesty International and activist groups have campaigned against what they believe to be a politically motivated imprisonment for decades, and continue to demand his release.
The same paradigm exists by way of the US system in the regimes it backs and supports away from it’s own shores.
In recent days, Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan, another indigenous individual imprisoned in his own land, died in Israeli prison after almost three months on hunger strike. Israel, the illegal apartheid regime, is funded each year to the tune of billions of dollars by the United States.
Reforming the US prison system at home to prevent the treatment Lashawn Thompson was dealt, could prove vital in producing the same results globally. But while Biden owes black communities for decades of support for the Democrats, getting prison reform onto his agenda will not be easy. The president is arguably an establishment populist who is notorious for moving to wherever he deems the political centre ground to be.
Grassroots movements with the energy of the Civil Rights movement from the 1960s and the recent wave of Black Lives Matter Protests, are conscious of the limitations of any presidential candidate offering real change on such issues. Consequently, we’re seeing growing support for candidates seeking local political positions, which just might be the best way forward.
If Biden won’t do what is necessary, then black reformers in state positions in charge of local state laws and budgets could lead the charge from the ground up, forcing his administration to follow. This could finally ensure that needless deaths like that of Lashawn Thompson are prevented.
Richard Sudan is a journalist and writer specialising in anti-racism and has reported on various human rights issues from around the world. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Independent, The Voice and many others.
Follow him on Twitter: @richardsudan
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.