Content warning: This piece contains descriptions of inhumane treatment that may be disturbing to some readers.
On Aug. 24, 2023, former President Donald Trump was arrested at Georgia’s Fulton County Jail for his repeated attempts to overturn the 2020 election. His mugshot — featuring his distinctive windswept combover set atop a disgruntled scowl — circulated rapidly and widely across the internet, provoking catharsis and celebration from millions, myself included. The depths of Trump’s corruption and cruelty cannot be overstated.
Ostensibly, this was a progressive victory. Finally, a wealthy white man had been humbled into indignity — finally, he had been afforded no special privileges. It was a refreshing change. At last, some institution had managed to wrangle No. 45 into some semblance of accountability. As political reporter Jonathan J. Cooper writes for the Associated Press, a mugshot “is a visceral representation of the criminal justice system … It must be particularly foreign to a man born into privilege, who famously loves to be in control, who is highly attentive to his image and who rose to be the most powerful figure in the world.”
However, largely ignored in the initial celebration of his arrest is the ugly truth of Fulton County Jail. Donald Trump exists in stark contrast to the usual inmates that occupy the facility. For starters, 87 percent of the incarcerated population is Black — a reflection of the broader mass incarceration of Black people, who are imprisoned at approximately five times the rate of white people. Moreover, the top three most common charges for detainees in 2021 were all petty crimes (especially compared to Trump’s egregious attempts at undermining the foundation of democracy): criminal trespassing, possession and use of drugs, and shoplifting.
Photographing and publicly releasing Trump’s mugshot seems to be a way of treating him like regular detainees, reaching something of an equalizer that cuts across wealth and status. However, as investigative journalist Keri Blakinger explains, “If he were treated like any other defendant, [Trump] would have been given a bail amount he couldn’t afford and left to die in a filthy cell.”
Fulton County Jail is the epitome of such injustice. With fifteen recorded deaths during 2022, it became one of the deadliest jails in the country during the Covid-19 pandemic. The most recent death was that of Alexander Hawkins, who had been arrested for shoplifting a pair of pants and an electric razor and was unable to post bail. He had spent most of his life either incarcerated or homeless.
Disturbingly, Fulton County Jail is the “the largest mental health provider in this county” according to journalist George Chidi, which he describes as “a tragedy all on its own.” 54 percent of Fulton County detainees have a mental health condition, which is reflective of a broader pattern across the country. Mentally ill people are heavily overrepresented in the American penal system; there are more severely mentally ill people in prisons and jails than in hospitals. As anti-prison activist Angela Davis wrote 20 years ago in her seminal work “Are Prisons Obsolete?,” “Within the health care system, it is important to emphasize the current scarcity of institutions available to poor people who suffer severe mental and emotional illnesses … the racial and class disparities in care available to the affluent and the deprived need to be eradicated.” Two decades later, the words still ring true as ever. Poor, Black, and mentally ill people suffer most painfully from the facility’s institutionalized cruelty.
The horrors of Fulton County Jail were laid bare with the appalling death of inmate Lashawn Thompson, who was found covered in lice and filth with his head on a toilet. An independent medical review ruled Thompson’s death as a homicide caused by severe neglect of his untreated schizophrenia. Thompson’s jail cell was described as akin to a “torture chamber.”
It’s tempting to celebrate as Donald Trump receives long-awaited punishment for his dizzying array of crimes, as his celebrity status no longer serves as a total shield from consequences.
However, the deeply disturbing reality of Fulton County Jail should not be overshadowed by its latest famous detainee. As long as this performative display of equity remains uncontested, such disproportionate suffering will continue unabated.