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Tennessee Jail Sexual Assault Lawsuit can Proceed, Federal Court Rules

by David M. Reutter

A Tennessee federal district court has held the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Esco Jarnagin can be held liable for the sexual assault of a pretrial detainee. The ruling was based on long-standing deficient conditions at the Hamblen County Jail (HCJ).

The Tennessee Corrections Institute conducts annual inspections of local jails in the state. The inspection reports for HCJ from 2010 to 2017 revealed “a number of deficiencies including overcrowding, insufficient security checks, inadequate checks, inadequate staffing, difficulty with properly classifying inmates, failure to provide information about reporting sexual assault to inmates, and many incidents of inmate-on-inmate assault,” the district court noted. The Tennessee Corrections Institute recommended that HCJ be decertified for failing to meet minimum jail standards.

Following an arrest for the manufacture, delivery, sale or possession of methamphetamine, Zackery Beck was booked into HCJ on October 4, 2016. While a guard was escorting him to a cell, another prisoner warned the guard not to put Beck in “little Mexico,” because it would be “bad for him.” Nonetheless, Beck was placed in an area of the jail known as “the slams,” which has four-bed cells.

While there, two of Beck’s cellmates, in conjunction with a detainee in an adjacent cell, grabbed him and put a shank to his throat, pulled his pants down and checked his rectum for drugs or cigarettes using their fingers.

Beck did not immediately report the sexual assault, but after being moved to an isolation cell because other prisoners complained he was stealing their food, he submitted a medical request at a jail kiosk that stated, “They dug into my ass thinking I had a pack and it hasn’t stopped bleeding and I’m starting to really worry.”

Then, on October 13, 2016, after being moved to another cellblock, Beck was attacked and assaulted by a prisoner who jimmied open his locked cell. Beck faked a suicide attempt to get the guards’ attention so he could be removed from the area.

Beck filed a civil rights complaint on October 3, 2017, alleging violations of his Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. He argued that Sheriff Jarnagin was deliberately indifferent to detainee safety and had failed to protect him, and that Hamblen County’s policies failed to keep prisoners safe and did not provide adequate training to staff. 

While the defendants agreed the jail failed to meet TCI standards and overcrowding was a pervasive issue, they moved for summary judgment.

The district court noted HCJ was certified for 255 prisoners, but in 2016 and 2017 it held an average population of 375 and 392, respectively. There was also no disagreement that “inmate-on-inmate assaults continue to rise” at the jail.

The thrust of Beck’s claims against the sheriff included failure to properly classify detainees which caused violent and non-violent prisoners to be mixed together, inadequate staffing, lack of routine safety checks and holding prisoners in cells without control-room monitors, which created a risk of harm. 

The district court found that Sheriff Jarnagin was aware of those conditions, but beyond asking the county for more money or a new jail, he had taken no action to reduce the risk of harm to prisoners. Thus, the court found he was not entitled to qualified immunity and could be found liable by a jury.

Likewise, Hamblen County was on notice of the jail conditions and failed to act, creating a policy, custom or practice of allowing the deficient conditions to persist. However, Beck’s claims against the county for punitive damages, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress were dismissed with prejudice. 

Accordingly, the district court granted in part and denied in part the defendants’ summary judgment motion. Sheriff Jarnagin has since appealed that order to the Sixth Circuit, and his appeal remains pending. See: Beck v. Hamblen County, Tennessee, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 2:17-cv-00178-TRM-MCLC. 

Related legal case

Beck v. Hamblen County, Tennessee