People Keep Dying At This Memphis Jail — And The Lawsuits Are Piling Up

The Shelby County jail has grown more deadly than the infamous Rikers Island, and it's been slow to address widespread problems.
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost; Photo: Getty, Photos courtesy of the Freeman and Byrd families

Deion Byrd would have turned 26 years old on Jan. 31. His father, Marcus Byrd, told HuffPost that Deion usually spent his birthdays with his family, watching television and eating some of his mother’s cooking at their home in Memphis, Tennessee.

“He liked joking and things like that,” Marcus said. “He wanted to rap and made a few mixtapes. He had dreams of doing things he could enjoy.”

Last year, Deion Byrd was involved in a car crash that led to a man’s death. Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy alleged that Byrd and another man were evading police in a getaway vehicle linked to organized robberies at local liquor stores. Byrd was in the passenger seat.

Byrd was indicted on charges of theft, burglary, vehicular homicide and first-degree murder and was sent to the Shelby County jail on June 24.

On Oct. 26, he was set to appear before a judge for an arraignment and was in a holding cell in the Shelby County courthouse with another inmate, Donnie Clay, 21. Byrd and Clay began arguing after Byrd accused Clay of breaking into his home.

Clay allegedly stabbed Byrd in the neck with a shank. Byrd died at a nearby hospital. “How could we not be able to protect another inmate from being killed?” Shelby County Judge Paula Skahan said after the incident. “That’s our job, to make sure everyone is safe in our system, and we couldn’t do it.”

His family also had questions. “Deion was already in a place that was already crumbling,” Marcus Byrd told HuffPost. “There is no structure there, and they don’t have enough people to watch everybody.”

Byrd’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit last month — the third filed against the jail in the past year, all of them ongoing. The Byrd family’s suit alleged that poor staffing and neglect led to the deaths of prisoners in the facility.

In recent years, the Shelby County jail has grown more deadly than the notoriously dangerous Rikers Island jail complex in New York.

While Rikers had 16 deaths between January and December 2021, the Shelby County jail had 10 deaths. In 2022, the Shelby County jail deaths increased to 14 for the year while Rikers Island had 17, despite having two and a half times the population.

The Shelby County sheriff’s department declined to comment on the jail’s death rate, on allegations from inmates’ family members, or on the ongoing lawsuits.

A Long History Of Problems

The U.S. Department of Justice began investigating the Shelby County jail in 2000 due to multiple allegations of excessive violence and inadequate prisoner supervision. The findings showed conditions in the jail were violating the constitutional rights of prisoners, and that the facility did not have adequate supervision of prisoners, leading to repeated incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence.

In May 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed a federal class action lawsuit against the jail demanding the release of inmates who were at risk of getting COVID-19. The lawsuit said the jail violated constitutional rights and did not meet minimum statutory requirements. An agreement was reached in 2021 that the jail would implement changes to improve conditions and control the spread of the virus better.

A total of 52 inmates have died in the jail since 2016.

Shelby County court records note 31 violations among county correctional officers from June 2018 to September 2021. The disciplinary actions range from oral and written reprimands to suspensions and firings.

A poster showing an image of Gershun Freeman is seen during a news conference on Sept. 25, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. Freeman, 33, died in October 2022 after he was beaten in a Memphis jail. Nine jail deputies have been charged in the beating.
A poster showing an image of Gershun Freeman is seen during a news conference on Sept. 25, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. Freeman, 33, died in October 2022 after he was beaten in a Memphis jail. Nine jail deputies have been charged in the beating.
Adrian Sainz via Associated Press

In one incident, a correctional officer pepper-sprayed a prisoner while enclosed in the cell with them. Another officer was caught on surveillance footage pushing an inmate down a set of steps. Elsewhere, an officer was seen on camera punching an inmate several times and spraying him with a chemical agent. In the latter two incidents, officers were found to be in the wrong but only received oral reprimands, according to Shelby County sheriff’s department records.

Only one officer, Frederick McCloud, was fired for their actions. McCloud was indicted on felony misconduct and aggravated assault charges on Nov. 13, 2019, after he assaulted a prisoner who was handcuffed, causing significant head injuries.

A String Of Deaths

Marcus Donald’s family filed a $75 million lawsuit in November against Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, claiming that his staff did nothing to protect Donald after multiple death threats from other prisoners.

Donald, 38, was strangled to death by a cellmate on Nov. 17, 2022. He was the 35th person to die in Shelby County custody since 2019, and the 14th person to die in 2022 alone, according to the suit.

Donald’s cellmate, Stephen Robinson, pleaded guilty to murder in November of last year.

Gershun Freeman, 33, also died while in custody at the jail in 2022. Freeman’s family said he had mental health issues and was experiencing an episode when he allegedly lunged at officers from his cell.

In video of the fatal encounter, several deputies can be seen spraying and punching Freeman, who was Black. Nine deputies were indicted in Freeman’s death; two of the deputies were charged with murder.

“We want justice at the end of the day. A life was taken,” his wife, Nicole Freeman, told HuffPost. “We are thinking of the families that would have to deal with these issues in the future.”

And earlier this year, Ramon McGhee, a Black man, died in the jail while awaiting trial. Correctional officers found McGhee, 42, unresponsive on Jan. 12, covered in lice and bedbugs. His death prompted an investigation from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations. An official autopsy has not been released to determine McGhee’s manner of death, and an investigation is ongoing.

Bonner, who oversees the jail and has been cited in prior wrongful death lawsuits in connection with the facility, said officers failed to handle McGhee’s condition while he was being held there.

“Unfortunately, directions concerning his cell cleaning and personal hygiene were disregarded, and crucial information was withheld,” Bonner said in a statement released this month. “Those within the Sheriff’s Office who neglected their responsibilities regarding this tragic incident are not reflective of our values.”

Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner walks away after a news conference about the indictments of nine jail deputies in connection with an inmate's fatal beating, Sept. 20, 2023, in Memphis.
Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner walks away after a news conference about the indictments of nine jail deputies in connection with an inmate's fatal beating, Sept. 20, 2023, in Memphis.
Adrian Sainz via Associated Press

McGhee’s attorneys conducted an independent autopsy and released findings to the public Friday, determining that he died as a result of severe malnutrition, starvation, dehydration and extensive insect infestation.

“It is not just that the guards in there can act barbaric,” said Brice Timmons, who is representing Freeman’s family. “It is that when they have people in there that are really vulnerable, there is little to no screening and treatment for that.”

Defiant Leadership

After Byrd’s death, Bonner acknowledged the officers’ failures and began a professional standards investigation. “Until we get our staffing levels up, we’re trying to make do with what we have,” Bonner told Fox13, a Memphis television affiliate, saying that after Byrd’s case, the department went through its policies.

Bonner told the news station Byrd’s case is still under investigation.

But Bonner has remained defiant in the face of the indictments concerning Freeman’s death. He was running for Memphis mayor at the time, and claimed it was a political attack against him.

“I stand with these officers and I believe if I were not running for another office, then these indictments never would have happened. I find this despicable,” Bonner said at a press conference. He also said he would start or donate to a fundraiser for each of the deputies criminally charged. (He ultimately lost his bid for mayor.)

“It was really devastating to know and actually hear the comments he made,” Nicole Freeman said. “He displayed no remorse and no empathy toward not just the family, but the whole situation itself.”

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