Seven dead in seven years: The Arlington County Jail’s kill count

Inmate Paul Thompson’s February death is a symptom of a national sickness

Arlington County Detention Facility

Photo via Liam Mason

Arlington County Detention Facility

On February 1, 2022, 41-year-old Paul Thompson was found dead from cardiac arrest on the floor of the Arlington County Jail, according to Arlington Now. A homeless and mentally ill man, Thompson had been arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge and was being held until his next court hearing, which was scheduled to take place on February 8. 

On October 6, 2021, 58-year-old Clyde Spencer was found unresponsive on the floor of the Arlington County Jail, according to Arlington Now. Following failed resuscitation attempts, he was taken to the Virginia Hospital Center, where he died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease that night. He was a homeless man and had been arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge. His death took place while the Arlington County Detention Facility was under investigation by the Arlington County Police Department for the circumstances of the 2020 death of another inmate, Darryl Becton. 

On October 1, 2020, 46-year-old Derryl Becton was found unconscious in his cell, according to Arlington Now. Paramedics were dispatched for a report of “CPR in progress,” and, after failed resuscitation attempts, Becton was pronounced dead within the hour. Becton was jailed based on an alleged probation violation. He had previously pleaded guilty to felony unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. 

This pattern, unfortunately, continues ad nauseam. In the last seven years, seven people, six of them Black men, have died within the Arlington County Detention Facility (also known as the Arlington County Jail). This is a pattern that the Arlington chapter of the North American Association for Colored People (NAACP) has called “unacceptable, unconscionable, and distressing.” 

Right now, the jail and its previous healthcare provider Corizon are being sued by Becton’s family, who allege misconduct relating to Becton’s 2020 death, according to the Washington Post. Following Becton’s death, Corizon has been replaced, and a Corizon nurse, Antoine Smith, has been charged with falsifying a medical record. The record documented a supposed visit to Becton’s cell on September 30, the day before Becton died. Smith marked that Becton displayed “no clear distress.” The only issue with this report was the fact that Becton was in court at that time, and never spoke to Smith that day. 

This disgusting combination of death and negligence is indicative of significant systemic problems with America, Virginia, and Arlington’s policing and prison systems. Of the three men dead in the last 15 months, two were homeless and arrested on trespassing charges. With no place to go, their mere existence was criminalized — with an ultimate death penalty. If they were displaying distressing behaviors, they could have been provided aid, housing, counseling, etc. Instead, they were “put in a cage,” in the words of Arlington’s chief public defender, Brad Haywood

These men’s lives were placed into the hands of private, for-profit contractors, namely, Corizon Health and Mediko Correctional Healthcare, who gravely failed them. According to the ACLU, Corizon Health has been sued 660 times for malpractice in the last five years, and made over 6 billion dollars in that time. Those sort of numbers are unavailable for Mediko, a younger, Virginia based company. However, Mediko is certainly not off to a great start — they had only been operating in Arlington for a little over two months when Paul Thompson died on their watch. Curiously, it was February 2, the day after Thompson’s death, that Arlington signed an official contract with Mediko, according to Arlington Now

That is right. Paul Thompson, a homeless man “everyone knew had serious mental illness,” according to Haywood, was arrested on trespassing charges, placed in custody and taken to the Arlington County Jail, where he spent his last two weeks caged, before dying in the hands of for-profit contractor Mediko. The next day, Arlington signed a contract with Mediko in order to ensure the future safety of our prisoners, of whom 170 out of 280 are mentally ill. The prison system is a sick joke, and despite the hushed voices of its local authors, one that rings out grimly in Arlington. 

The Arlington County Jail should not be a cage for the homeless or the mentally ill. We need to re-allocate funding — the 2022 combined budget of the Arlington Police Department and Sheriff’s Department is over $118 million. Compare this to the $16.2 million provided to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF), a fund meant to finance and encourage the construction of new affordable housing developments through county loans, and the problem becomes evident. Now, it’s obviously worth acknowledging that the AHIF is far from the only community investment project funded by Arlington County. Still, I would rather my family’s taxes go to affordable housing, which supports Arlington, as opposed to private health contractors like Corizon and Mediko who have clearly failed our community. 

Every single death in an Arlington jail is a fundamental policy failing. Paul Thompson should not have been in jail, even Sheriff Beth Arthur acknowledges that fact. Beyond that, though, Thompson, the six men before him, and so many other criminals arrested should have been supported prior to their incarceration. Is imprisonment really the most reasonable solution to trespassing? The homeless, the mentally ill, along with all Arlingtonians deserve better than a cold cell and an irresponsible contractor. 

In the words of the Arlington chapter of the NAACP,  “Mr. Thompson was awaiting a hearing on a trespassing charge when he died in a jail cell in which he had been confined for over two weeks. Mr. Spencer died for the crime of being homeless and Black. Mr. Becton for a probation violation that should not have landed him in jail. The other men who died in custody were held on similar minor charges. The pattern was evident then, and it continues to repeat, without anything more from the county than ‘expression of condolences.’ Condolences ring hollow. The NAACP’s national motto, ‘We Are Done Dying,’ sadly applies — but will our elected officials and the government listen this time? We call on the U.S. Department of Justice to open investigations immediately into the now seven deaths of people of color in the Arlington County Detention Facility and for an investigation into the arrest and incarceration patterns in Arlington County as well.” Beyond justice, we need change. 


Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur can be reached at 703-228-4460.

Arlington County Board members’ contact information can be found here



Compared to national numbers, the Arlington County Jail’s one-death-year average isn’t drastically out of the ordinary. Its reality, however, contradicts the Arlingtonian notion that our little blue political island is free of American sin. Police violence exists in Arlington, and despite the sheriff’s adamant promises over the last seven years, police violence continues, in our backyard. 


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