Prisoner Abuse at Parchman: Minimum Punishment and Impeded Investigations
by David M. Reutter
A federal investigation into an assault on a prisoner by guards at Mississippi’s State Penitentiary at Parchman included a claim that then-Superintendent Earnest Lee impeded the prison’s own review of the incident.
As previously reported in PLN, another FBI investigation resulted in federal charges against four guards involved in the attempted cover-up of a March 9, 2014 assault at Parchman. That incident left an unnamed prisoner temporarily blinded; he also suffered severe blood loss, a broken orbital bone and permanent partial vision loss. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.63; Nov. 2016, p.63].
Guard Lawardrick Marsher, 29, admitted he had repeatedly punched and kicked the prisoner. Lt. Robert Sturdivant, 47, then spearheaded the cover-up. The guards wrote false reports and lied to federal investigators; the Department of Justice found they “falsely minimized and falsely justified the force used by officers.”
The four guards pleaded guilty to the federal charges and were sentenced in June 2017. Marsher and Sturdivant each received 50 weekends in jail, five years’ probation and 150 hours of community service. Guard Deonte Pate, 24, was sentenced to 12 weekends in jail and probation for his role in concealing the incident, while guard Romander Nelson, 44, received 14 weekends in jail and probation for failing to intervene to protect the prisoner who was beaten.
With an incident drawing scrutiny from federal investigators, one would think prison staff, especially supervisory officials, would be proactive in stamping out assaults on prisoners or having them properly investigated. Superintendent Lee, however, believed that while excessive use of force against a prisoner may be “wrong,” he had “never known of allegations where you take a person down to Sunflower County Jail for that,” referring to the local lock-up.
Lee was tape recorded when he entered an interview room at Parchman as officers with the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) were conducting a November 21, 2016 interview of guard Steven Tyler, who was considered a criminal suspect in an attack on a prisoner. Lee said he entered the room after being told CID investigators had assaulted Tyler.
The recording revealed that Tyler denied beating the prisoner. The investigators then informed Tyler they needed his pants as evidence after they noticed what appeared to be blood on them. At that point he tried to leave the room, and CID investigator James Bobo stood in the doorway and said he couldn’t leave.
“[Tyler] grabbed investigator Bobo and threw him out of the way,” investigator William Carter testified. “I grabbed Officer Tyler around his body and pushed him into the wall, trying to stop him from leaving. He pushed me off, and by that time investigator Bobo had done got back up.” Investigator John Rogers then came to help. “Officer Tyler is a large fellow,” Carter noted.
Shortly after Tyler was in handcuffs, Superintendent Lee arrived with K-9 guards and tried to remove Tyler from the interview room. Lee was heard on tape, insisting that Tyler be allowed to leave.
“Why are you trying to interfere with the investigation, superintendent?” Rogers asked.
Lee responded, “I have a right to talk to any of these staff members out here.”
Rogers replied, “Not during the course of the investigation. You’re impeding a criminal investigation right now.”
A scuffle was heard on tape when Bobo tried to leave the room. Later, when Lee was told Tyler was a criminal suspect and impeding the investigation, he responded, “I guess I’m a criminal, too.”
After the tape ended, Lee attempted to remove Carter from the doorway. When Bobo tried to separate the men, Lee slapped Bobo. Lee and Tyler subsequently filed assault charges against Bobo, who filed charges against them.
A judge found probable cause that Bobo had assaulted Tyler. Based on that finding, Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall suspended Bobo. He was reinstated in late June 2017 but forced to work at another prison 140 miles away. Rogers was terminated, while Superintendent Lee announced his retirement in September 2017.
Although state and federal officials typically say assaults on prisoners are intolerable and will be punished, these incidents at Parchman show that even when a cover-up is exposed, minimal sanctions such as weekends in jail and probation are the result. Further, in some cases prison authorities impede investigations into staff-on-prisoner abuse.
Sources: Clarion Ledger, www.justice.gov