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'These deaths are happening every week' | Recent death at Shelby County Jail prompts discussion of Tennessee prison reform

The Shelby County Sheriff's Office says this was the 5th inmate death this year, a total of 44 since Floyd Bonner became Sheriff in 2018.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is once again looking into the Shelby County Jail a week after Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy asked them to investigate the death of 70-year-old Thomas Earl Williams.

The August death is one of several at the jail this year, raising concerns about the jail’s condition and oversight. An inmate passed away earlier the same month at Shelby County Jail East for Women.

There have been five deaths at Shelby County Jails in 2023, according to the Sheriff’s Office, but watchdog groups said this is a problem the entire state of Tennessee is dealing with.

"These deaths are happening every week," said Theeda Murphy, Abolition Works Tennessee Director.

Murphy said a lack of oversight has led to a series of inmate deaths across the state.

"There's no one who's recording these deaths. There's nobody paying attention to how these jails and prisons are being managed on a day-to-day basis," said Murphy.

Inmate deaths averaged around 1.67 people in the state in 2019, the same year the last federal inmate death numbers were reported.

Shelby County reported around the average, but Wednesday’s announcement is bringing reform discussions to the forefront.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, there have been 44 inmate deaths since Memphis mayoral candidate Floyd Bonner became the Sheriff back in 2018.

Gershun Freeman was one of the most publicized deaths, suffering a heart attack back in October after officers restrained him. The incident has Freeman’s family questioning what goes on behind bars.

"They killed my boy,” said Gershun Freeman's father George Burks back in February. "My boy didn't deserve that."

A spokesperson with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office said out of the inmate deaths since 2018, 17 had pre-existing medical conditions.

Murphy said loved ones of inmates with similar medical conditions often contact her in fear the inmates will not get the care they need.

"They talk about how hard it is for their loved ones to get their medicine on time, and so that leads them to having health issues that go unaddressed and compound and become life threatening," said Murphy.

Watchdog groups are pushing for overall prison reform, including finding alternative treatment for inmates, a way to address poverty and a way to hold jails and prisons to higher standards across the state.

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