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High number of inmate deaths looms over Sheriff Bonner’s campaign for mayor of Memphis

The number of inmate deaths in the jail system is high compared to other counties the size of Shelby County, and it’s happened with Sheriff Bonner in charge.
Credit: WATN

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The latest death of a Shelby County inmate comes as Sheriff Floyd Bonner is one of the leading candidates to become the next mayor of Memphis. 

The sheriff was set to speak with ABC24 regarding another story Monday but canceled at the last minute as news of the death became public.

The number of inmate deaths in the jail system is high compared to other counties the size of Shelby County, and it’s happened with Sheriff Bonner in charge.

“Whenever someone is elected to public office, whatever happens on their watch belongs to them,” said long-time political consultant Susan Adler Thorp.

According to the sheriff’s department, there are no signs of foul play in the death of 43-year-old Kimberly Clark. 

“If she died of natural causes, that's one thing,” said Adler Thorp. “If she died because of something that happened in the jail, that's something else.” 

Adler Thorp, who is doing consulting for mayoral candidate JW Gibson, said the development could still create a problem for Bonner’s campaign. 

“It stirs up the memory of what happened last year and the year before with other inmates dying,” she said.  

In 2022, there were 14 inmate deaths, the highest since Bonner took office in 2018. That includes the death of Gershun Freeman, whose family is calling for a federal investigation.

“In fairness, not all of the deaths at 201 Poplar are because of something that happened that was bad inside the jail,” Adler Thorp said. 

News of Clark’s death comes just one week after Bonner was named Tennessee’s Sheriff of the Year. 

“You saw a lot of publicity from inside his campaign team. You saw it all over social media and in the news,” Adler Thorp said. “An inmate dies in the jail. The jail is run by the sheriff. That also happens on his watch...You're not going see any publicity generated by the Bonner campaign about this.” 

Opponents are already pouncing on the news. Candidate Michelle McKissack released a statement saying: 

“I recently learned that another person has died while in custody at the Shelby County Jail. Since Sheriff Floyd Bonner became sheriff in 2018, 40 people have died in the county jails. This is astonishing. There’s been no full investigation or explanation from Sheriff Bonner, and there’s been no accountability. The lives of these 40 people matter. It matters that Sheriff Bonner doesn’t show up to community forums to take questions about this. It matters that he doesn’t live in Memphis but wants to run Memphis.

 I am calling on the Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy and Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner to fully investigate all detainee deaths, conduct a review of and overhaul its policies to prevent in-jail deaths. The 40 people who lost their lives in Sheriff Bonner’s jails deserve justice, and Memphis deserves answers why detainees are dying.”

The medical examiner is still working to determine the official cause of Clark’s death. 

“I would caution everybody to just wait and see what happened,” Adler Thorp said. “But in the meantime, I think his campaign team has a lot of work ahead of them.”


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