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Incompetence, Brutality and Scandal Infest Tennessee Prisons and Jails

by Michael Rigby

Tennessee isn't known for its huge prison system, like Texas or California. Nor is the state's capital city, Nashville, recognized for massively overcrowded jails such as the ones in Los Angeles or New York City. But one thing is clear: Tennessee lockups are just as dangerous, the guards equally brutal and incompetent, and supervisory officials just as scandal-prone as those in more populous states.

At a prison in Nashville, a state prisoner was brutally murdered and set on fire after guards abandoned their post, leaving him with two other maximum-security prisoners; one of the guards was fired for violating prison policy and the other resigned. A national headline-making escape of a state prisoner from a courthouse parking lot resulted in the shooting death of a prison guard. Another guard smuggled a gun into a state facility for her imprisoned lover. And at the administrative level, the Commissioner of the Tennessee Dept. of Correction (TDOC) resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment and questions about his relationship with a subordinate.
The situation is no better in the state's county jails. At one Nashville facility a diabetic prisoner died after private contract medical personnel failed to dispense his insulin. At another jail operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a female prisoner was murdered in her cell by four guards. At the same facility a pregnant prisoner received inadequate medical care, resulting in a miscarriage. A Tennessee sheriff was indicted and convicted for aiding in the escape of a female prisoner, who had been impregnated by one of his deputies, so she could obtain an abortion. And a grand jury in Knoxville faulted the county jail for low staffing ratios and inadequate medical care leading to a prisoner's death; another prisoner was murdered at the facility.

A state prisoner committing suicide, federal charges filed against jail guards who beat a prisoner to death, and a jailhouse escape round out Tennessee's prison and jail-related travails.

Another Casualty of the Drug War

The day was probably progressing like any other for Keith Latron Drinkard, one of three maximum-security prisoners on a work detail inside the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI) in Nashville. Unfortunately, it didn't end like any other day. When the two guards supervising the trio left to perform drug tests in another part of the prison, the two other prisoners allegedly attacked Drinkard.

The guards returned at about 6:30 p.m., just in time to watch Drinkard, 38, take his last breath. He had been stabbed 8 times, doused with gasoline from a prison lawn mower and set on fire. I was in shock. It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen," said Kevin Pittman, one of the guards who left his post. I haven't had much of an appetite since. I don't sleep good. If there was anything I could have done to stop it, I would have done it.

In the aftermath of the April 21, 2005 killing at RMSI, Pittman, 38, was fired while prison sergeant Warren Russell, 50, the second guard involved, was allowed to resign. The other two prisoners on the work detail, Robert V. Manning and Eric F. Manning (not related), are prime suspects in Drinkard's murder. Maximum-security prisoners are allowed to perform cleaning jobs and hand out meal trays. But according to TDOC policy, such prisoners must be constantly supervised. Pittman said prisoners are occasionally left unsupervised because of the prison's work load and staffing levels.

Russell submitted his resignation in a May 6, 2005 letter to RMSI Warden Ricky Bell, two weeks after Drinkard's death. Along with abandoning his post that day, Russell was accused of lying to investigators and coercing his subordinates to falsify reports. As one example, Pittman and Russell first told investigators they were gone for less than two minutes, but later admitted they had been absent for 12-15 minutes. In a letter accepting Russell's resignation, Warden Bell wrote that Russell coerced ... subordinates to falsify reports and statements in order to prevent your negligence from being discovered.

Prison officials said they don't believe the guards intentionally left to allow the attack, and no criminal charges were filed against either guard. Warden Bell refused to say why he allowed Russell to resign rather than being fired.

While prison officials held Pittman and Russell responsible for Drinkard's murder, Pittman blames his superiors, claiming he told his supervisor it wasn't a good idea to leave the prisoners unsupervised while he and Russell conducted drug tests. Shouldn't we lock these guys up?" he recalled asking. He was told the prisoners needed to finish stripping the floors.
In a bizarre twist, another prison guard who offered supporting testimony in Pittman's disciplinary hearing was fired for falsely claiming that he was involved in an unrelated murder.

TDOC guard Jason Johnson, 20, admitted telling a supervisor that he took a friend to get some drug money and that my friend killed somebody." His comments sparked an internal affairs investigation, and prison officials contacted police to determine if a murder similar to the one Johnson described had been committed. We looked at the limited information that he gave, but there didn't seem to be a case that fit," said Metro police spokesman Don Aaron.

Johnson said he made up the story after his supervisor related a story of how he and his brother moved many kilos of dope." Johnson said his comments were not intended to be taken seriously and that he didn't believe the supervisor's story, either. It was only guy talk," he said.
But comments made during Johnson's May 18, 2005 disciplinary hearing heightened prison officials' suspicions. On multiple occasions during the interview you stated that you were not willing to snitch' on your friend, even if it meant losing your job or going to prison for your knowledge or participation in the murder," Warden Bell wrote in a letter notifying Johnson that he was being fired effective July 4. Both Johnson and Pittman are appealing their terminations.

Corrections Commissioner Resigns

While corruption and incompetence permeated the lower ranks of the prison system, scandal was also percolating at the top. On July 13, 2005, TDOC Commissioner Quenton White, a former U.S. Attorney General for Middle Tennessee, resigned amid mounting questions relating to a sexual harassment claim against him, circumstances surrounding his relationship with a former subordinate, and his handling of a sexual harassment allegation against his executive assistant.

Governor Phil Bredesen confirmed that White was the subject of an August 2004 sexual harassment investigation, but said the complaint was deemed unfounded. The Nashville newspaper, The Tennessean, was unable to independently confirm the information because the Personnel Department's top attorney, who investigated the complaint, shredded her notes and no written report was filed.

As part of its inquiry into Bredesen's administration, which was part of a broader ethics investigation, The Tennessean asked the Personnel Department for copies of files on the ten most recent harassment claims it had investigated. Three of the files the newspaper received were empty and the state refused to provide any records in those cases. One of the empty files involved the claim against Quenton White, said Personnel Department spokeswoman Lola Potter.

White, who was appointed by Bredesen in 2003, has been implicated in numerous other scandals as well. In June 2005, questions were raised about the TDOC's handling of a September 2004 sexual harassment claim against Omaran Lee, White's executive assistant. Lee was suspended for one day without pay for sexually harassing a secretary, and six months later White promoted him and gave him a raise.

As the scrutiny of White increased, news accounts reported that White's driver's license had been suspended for failing to pay a ticket he received in Louisiana. It was then discovered that White had apparently been driving his state-issued car for months with a suspended license, and that his license had been suspended twice before.

White's indiscretions also extended to his home life. His wife filed for divorce in January, 2005, and it was revealed that White's girlfriend, Kym Dukes, was his subordinate until she transferred from the TDOC to the Department of Education in October 2004.

Further, in April 2005, state lawmakers had expressed frustration over the prison system's failure to control drugs and other contraband being smuggled into state facilities, often by TDOC employees. Here in the state of Tennessee, I don't believe that our policies and procedures have been quite as effective as they could be," said state Sen. Doug Jackson, co-chairman of the Select Oversight Committee on Correction.

According to a June 2, 2005 article in The Tennessean, 17 TDOC employees had resigned or been fired due to drug violations since the beginning of 2004, and twelve had subsequently faced prosecution. The offenses ranged from an employee being found with drugs at the prison academy to a guard who smuggled two pounds of marijuana into a secure facility. In one case, former TDOC guard Jamie Bizzle admitted that he had brought drugs, alcohol and a cell phone into the Northwest Correctional Complex in West Tennessee. I smuggled drugs to inmates, but I had only done two small packages and that was it," said Bizzle. They weren't but a size of a matchbox. It wasn't a whole lot." Commissioner White was criticized by legislators for not doing more to address problems with contraband and corrupt guards.
Following White's resignation in July, 2005, Deputy Corrections Commissioner (and former Davidson County Sheriff) Gayle Ray was appointed interim commissioner. Several days later Ray fired two of White's executive assistants, Omaran Lee and Julian Davis. Ray said she would evaluate White's remaining staff to see if more employees needed to be fired.
Ray, who stated she would like to be appointed commissioner of the state's 15 prisons and 19,000 prisoners on a permanent basis, also ordered all 5,200 TDOC employees, including herself, to undergo workplace harassment training. Unfortunately for Ray's future career plans, in September 2005 Governor Bredeson named George Little to run Tennessee's prison system. Little has over 20 years experience in the prison and jail industry and previously worked for the TDOC, the Shelby County Division of Corrections, and the Board of Probation and Parole. Bringing a no-nonsense approach to the job, the new commissioner said he would work to reduce employee turnover, would crack down on drugs and other contraband, and would not tolerate prisoner-staff relationships or sexual harassment by employees.
Little wasted little time in showing that he was serious. On November 4, 2005, approximately 300 state officers mounted a surprise raid on the state's largest prison complex, the West Tennessee State Prison, searching for drugs, cell phones and other contraband. Drug dogs and electronic detection devices were used in the daylong search, which included both prisoners and TDOC employees. One prison visitor was arrested on drug charges, and the dogs alerted to at least six cars in the facility's parking lot, including one belonging to a prison employee. Obviously something needs to be done, and I think it sends a clear message that we're not going to tolerate the illegal activities -- whether it be the inmates or the correctional officers," said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn.

Little also voiced support when lawmakers suggested random drug testing for prison employees during a December 5, 2005 Oversight Committee on Corrections hearing, saying he found it amazing" that the TDOC didn't already require employee drug tests (prisoners are currently subject to random drug testing, of course). Little further testified that he was taking steps to address the contraband problem, including the use of cell phone detectors, the installation of more security cameras, and an increased use of drug detection dogs. We're going to add [more security measures] until we have every entry point covered and virtually every housing unit," he said.

Deadly Escape, Smuggled Gun and Other Problems in State Prisons
In a gross security lapse, on August 9, 2005, TDOC prisoner George Hyatte escaped from the Roane County courthouse parking lot during a gun battle in which his wife, Jennifer Hyatte, a former TDOC nurse, shot and killed prison guard Wayne Cotton" Morgan. George Hyatte allegedly told his wife to shoot Morgan during the breakout; Jennifer Hyatte was wounded by Morgan's partner, who returned fire. The incident resulted in nationwide news coverage and the Hyattes remained on the run for three days before being captured in Columbus, Ohio. They were indicted in October 2005 on first-degree murder charges and prosecutors have stated they will seek the death penalty.

In another security lapse that occurred under Commissioner Little's watch, a prison guard was fired from the Charles Bass Correctional Complex in Nashville on Nov. 14, 2005 after she smuggled a derringer and two rounds of ammunition into the facility. TDOC guard Celina Clay, 51, brought the .38 caliber gun into the prison in October, 2005 and gave the weapon to prisoner Clinton Osborne, who was to deliver it to David Allen Lane, another TDOC prisoner with whom Clay had a romantic relationship. Osborne, who didn't want to get involved, reported the gun to prison officials. Clay was placed on administrative leave after the incident until she was fired; both Lane and Osborne were transferred to a maximum security facility.
In another prison-related incident, in September 2005 a prisoner at the Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, Tennessee hung himself from a sheet tied to a shower bar. Eddie E. Gaston's death was ruled a suicide; he was serving a 151-year sentence. But his attorney, Bruce Poston, said it was very shocking and inconceivable" that his client had killed himself, since Gaston's case was on appeal and oral arguments the month before had went very well.

PHS Neglect Kills Diabetic
Prisoner at Nashville Jail

Ricky Douglas would have turned 40 on March 17, 2005. Instead, that was the day his autopsy report was released. The report confirmed what many already suspected: Douglas died at Nashville's Metro Jail because Prison Health Services (PHS), which provides medical care to prisoners at the facility under a $3.5 million contract, failed to treat his diabetes even after he requested his medication.

It does appear that there were individual failings in following policies, and you had this adverse result," said Bob Eadie, deputy director of the Metro Public Health Department. Whatever consequences come from Mr. Douglas's death, Prison Health Services will be held accountable for those." The Health Department oversees the company's health care services.
On the night of January 18, 2005, Douglas and several other prisoners informed a jail guard that the nurse had not made her scheduled rounds to dispense medication. As so often happens in the correctional environment, the guard took no corrective action. After all, it wasn't his job.
Four hours later Douglas was dead. Deputies found him unresponsive in his cell at about 2:40 a.m. with one arm hanging from his bunk and his tongue protruding between his teeth. According to the autopsy report, his blood sugar had skyrocketed at the time of his death.

Douglas' family retained the Memphis law firm formerly headed by famed attorney Johnny Cochran. Attorney Archie Sanders III, who is investigating Douglas' death for the firm, said the autopsy indicates that PHS, the Davidson County sheriff's staff and the Metro Health Department all bear some responsibility for the death.

The entire situation has been very difficult and tough on the family," Sanders said. But it's especially tough on them because this could have been prevented with properly monitoring his medical conditions, with him receiving medications and getting him what he needed.

Following Douglas' death, two other diabetic prisoners at the jail said they had been hospitalized with severe diabetic-related illnesses because they were not given the correct amount of insulin. This is not surprising, as PHS has been accused of causing or contributing to prisoner deaths around the country, and criticized for its substandard level of correctional health care.

In February 2005, PHS was profiled in a scathing series of articles in the New York Times over the company's mishandling of numerous cases involving New York prisoners [see PLN, August, 2005]. PHS has also been investigated for shoddy medical care and suspicious prisoner deaths in Ohio, Nevada, Florida, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Pennsylvania [see PLN, March 2001; February and July 2003; and April and May 2004, respectively]. PHS was even implicated in the insulin-related death of another diabetic Tennessee prisoner in 1996, and the company was ordered to pay $187,500 of a total $377,500 damage award in that case [see PLN, May 2002].

CCA Guards Murder Female Jail Prisoner

Estelle Richardson was murdered in her isolation cell at the Nashville Metro Detention Facility on July 5, 2004, and four guards were placed on paid leave shortly after she was found beaten and unresponsive. The jail is privately operated by Corrections Corporations of America (CCA), the world's largest for-profit prison operator.

Richardson's death was initially investigated by the Nashville police and then turned over to the Davidson County district attorney general's office. The civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice also launched an investigation.

An autopsy found that Richardson, 34, suffered a fractured skull, four broken ribs and liver damage. Nashville Medical Examiner Bruce Levy ruled her death a homicide, saying the injuries indicated that Richardson's head had been slammed into a hard surface, such as a wall, and that it was impossible for Richardson to have killed herself or died by accident.
CCA records indicate that in the days immediately before her death Richardson was the only person in her cell. Also, one day before her body was found, she reportedly was involved in a fight with four guards because she refused to clean her cell.

CCA and the four guards -- Keith Hendricks, Joshua Schockman, Jeremy Neese and William Wood -- have been named as defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of Richardson's two minor children. The suit accuses the guards of beating Richardson to death. Richardson was serving a six-year sentence for trying to illegally obtain prescription painkillers, which was a violation of her probation. [For more on Richardson's death see PLN, April 2005].

Adding insult to injury, CCA refused to divulge how much the guards have earned while on paid administrative leave. The company claimed that such information was proprietary" and not subject to the state's Public Records Act because CCA is a private corporation and not a government agency.
Experts disagree. State courts have ruled that companies working as the functional equivalent of government entities must abide by the Public Records Act, said Rick Hollow, general counsel for the Tennessee Press Association. Therefore, [CCA's] records should be open to public inspection," he said.

Hollow pointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court's 2002 ruling in Memphis Publishing Co. v. Cherokee Children and Family Services, Inc. Privatization may be desirable in itself but it should not come without leaving public accountability intact," the court held. Not only should the public be able to monitor the private company's activities but the monitoring should be on the same terms as when the public agency was the information vendor.

Finally, in October 2005, almost fifteen months after Richardson was killed, the four guards were charged and arrested. Hendricks, Shockman, Neese and Wood pleaded not guilty to felony charges of reckless homicide and aggravated assault. We're just looking forward to the outcome, basically," said Tyrone Gibson, Richardson's brother. Hopefully it's in our favor, our family's favor, and for these men to be served justice." CCA declined to comment. The guards remain on administrative leave.

Poor Medical Care Results in Miscarriage

Meredith Manning, 23, formerly incarcerated at CCA's Metro Detention Center, the same facility where Estelle Richardson was murdered, filed a $250 million lawsuit against the company in August 2005, claiming that inadequate medical treatment she received at the facility led to the death of her newborn child.

Manning was under CCA's care at the jail, where she claimed she bled vaginally for three days, was left alone in her cell and was repeatedly ignored by medical staff despite her pleas for help. Finally, after screaming and beating on a door, she was taken to a hospital. By the third day, I was bleeding so bad it was going down my pants, onto the bed, onto the sheets, down my legs," she said.

Following her arrest on misdemeanor charges in 2004, Manning was diagnosed as being pregnant while at the CCA facility. She had to stay at the jail because she couldn't afford to post bond, said Nathan Moore, her lawyer in the criminal case and one of the attorneys representing her in the civil lawsuit.

Manning began having problems with bleeding on October 18, 2004, around her 22nd week of pregnancy. She claims that a nurse at the jail was verbally abusive and demanded to see proof" of the bleeding, according to the lawsuit. The nurse allegedly gave her some sanitary napkins and put told her to return once they were filled with blood. After being rushed to the hospital with blood running down her legs, Manning gave birth to Elisha Edward Manning, who lived less than three hours. Nashville attorney Jim Roberts, another attorney representing Manning in her suit against CCA, said no person should be treated the way Manning was treated. If it had happened to my dog, I would have taken (it) to the vet," he said. Which, apparently, is an accurate indication of how CCA treats prisoners housed in the company's for-profit facilities.

Even More Jail Madness

McNairy County, Tennessee Sheriff Tommy Riley was indicted on Oct. 24, 2004 and charged with official misconduct and other offenses in connection with facilitating the escape of prisoner Sheila Kirk, who was released from the county jail on June 17, 2004, almost eight months before completing her sentence. Sheriff Riley had ordered Kirk's release so she could have an abortion after she was impregnated by one of his deputies, Johnny Carter, who admitted that he also brought her cigarettes and drugs. Carter pleaded guilty to a sex charge and three counts of introducing contraband into the jail, and is serving a six-month sentence. On October 26, 2005, following a hung jury in his first trial, Riley was convicted of a Class C felony; he has not yet been sentenced but a petition has been filed to remove him from office. Jail administrator Jimmy Lyles was also indicted but the charges were later dismissed.

In Knoxville, a grand jury issued a report critical of the county jail after a prisoner died one day after a judge ordered that he be taken to a doctor. The report, released on Nov. 3, 2005, found fault with the prisoner-to-guard ratio at the facility and the health care provided to prisoners. The quality of the medical care is a concern," the report stated. We recommend that the county have an independent audit of facilities [and] equipment to ensure that medical care is within traditional facility requirements and meets minimum applicable standards of care.

The grand jury report, which has no legal authority, followed the August 2005 death of David Wesley Williams, 60, at the Knox County jail. Williams' family alleged that guards had refused to give him prescribed medications and neglected his medical needs. Williams' attorney, Assistant Public Defender Kenneth Irvine, was so concerned about his client's condition that he requested an order from Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz requiring jail officials to provide Williams with his medications. Sheriff Tim Hutchison claimed that Williams died of natural causes.

The grand jury also remarked on the high 48:1 ratio of prisoners to guards in each jail unit. It has operated at that ratio since the day it opened," said Hutchison, stating that it was also less expensive. While perhaps less costly, such sparse staffing may have contributed to the death of another prisoner at the facility. Nicholas Lewis Wirkkala was charged with reckless homicide for the August 2005 killing of fellow Knox County jail prisoner Harold Douglas Smith. Both Wirkkala and Smith were in the jail's intake area when they got into a fight. Wirkkala reportedly hit Smith once and walked away; Smith later lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital, where he died. The Sheriff's office declined to comment on the incident.
Another jail, in Roane County, Tennessee, experienced the brief escape of one of its prisoners. On Dec. 6, 2005, Dustin Scarbrough, who was being held on armed robbery charges, was spotted outside the jail by Kingston Police Sergeant Wes Stooksbury. After being taken into custody, Scarbrough was found to have a package containing clothes, liquor, prescription drugs, a substance thought to be crack cocaine, and four McDonald's hamburgers. It was not clear whether Scarbrough was trying to smuggle the items back into the facility to sell to other prisoners. He had escaped by prying loose a fence around the top of the recreation yard.

Finally, on December 29, 2005 it was reported that a former Wilson County, Tennessee jail guard, Gary Hale, had plead guilty to civil rights violations in connection with the 2003 beating death of a prisoner at the county jail, and had agreed to testify against four other jail employees. An investigation of the Wilson County jail revealed that guards had beaten prisoners at least eleven times between July 2001 and January 2003. Walter S. Kuntz, one of the prisoners who was assaulted, lapsed into a coma and died two days later on January 14, 2003; the county later settled a civil lawsuit filed by Kuntz's surviving family members for $400,000.

Hale was one of five former jail employees indicted on charges of conspiring to assault prisoners, covering up the assaults by creating false reports, and withholding medical care from prisoners who were beaten. The remaining defendants, Patrick Marlowe, Tommy Shane Conatser, Robert Ferrell and Robert Locke went to trial on the federal charges on January 10, 2006 and were convicted. PLN will report the details in an upcoming issue once they are sentenced. Two other Wilson County jail guards, John McKinney and Christopher Lynn McCathern, plead guilty to related charges in April and June 2004, respectively.

Tennessee prisons and jails, like many others around the country, are mired in a quagmire of overcrowding, low budgets, incompetence and brutality with an abdication of political will and leadership to resolve the problems. Having locked up 2.2 million Americans, politicians now seem at a loss of what to do with the resulting exponentially growing prison and jail population.

Sources: WSMV News (Nashville), The Tennessean, AP

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