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Tennessee DOC Coughs Up Video of Condemned Prisoner Who Severed Own Penis

by Eike Blohm, MD

After a month of foot-dragging, the Tennessee Department of Corrections (DOC) complied with a court order on February 24, 2023, releasing surveillance video of a death-row prisoner who cut off his own penis and was then left strapped to a foam mattress in his cell.

Henry Hodges, 56, pleaded guilty in 1990 to murdering a man in Nashville who allegedly accepted Hodges’ proposition for paid sex. With testimony at his sentencing from his 15-year-old girlfriend, who participated in the killing, Hodges was condemned.

Over the next three decades, DOC documented his extensive history of mental illness with recurrent psychotic episodes – including one in early October 2022, when Hodges began smearing feces on his cell walls at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI). Instead of treating his psychosis, staff simply withheld food. Four days later he slit his wrists. He begged medical staff to place him on suicide watch, but he was bandaged and returned to his cell instead.

In the midst of his decompensated psychosis, Hodges then used a piece of broken window glass and razor blades he’d secreted in his cell to cut off his penis. After surgery to reattach it, he was kept naked in his cell atop a thin foam mattress on a concrete slab, restrained by his wrists and ankles and left covered in his own feces.

His attorney, Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry, filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order against prison officials. Henry argued that Hodges’ prolonged immobility would lead to pressure sores; that fecal matter on the fresh surgical wound predispose it to infection; and that the absence of mental stimuli would exacerbate his psychosis. Prison staff wouldn’t even remove Hodges’ restraints long enough for him to sign his complaint.

On October 28, 2022, the Davidson County Chancery Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment guarantee of protection from cruel and unusual punishment entitled Hodges to the recognized standard of care for his medical conditions. A restraining order was issued to prevent the prison from keeping him in soiled clothing, nor could he remain restrained continuously in the same position while his pressure ulcers healed.

The court noted that the medical standard of care is to rotate an immobile patient every two hours to a new position. It furthermore ordered that Hodges receive adequate wound care, mental stimuli, periods of reduced lighting to facilitate sleep and access to medication for his psychosis. DOC argued that the court shouldn’t second-guess prison doctors, but Chancellor I’Ashea L. Myles was sufficiently horrified by Hodges’ treatment that she ordered an evaluation by an independent physician.

At once DOC moved to seal Hodges’ medical records and cell surveillance video – a motion Kelly fought on his behalf. The Associated Press and Nashville Banner filed motions to intervene, arguing the public had a right to see what so upset the court. Myles agreed with them on January 12, 2023, refusing the motion to seal and ordering release of the videos, with redactions to protect RMSI security. See: Hodges v. Helton, Tenn. Ch. (20th Jud. Dist., Davidson Cty.), Case No. 22-1440.

So what do the videos show? As WTVF in Nashville reported, they show “a man strapped to a piece of foam on a concrete slab for days in four-point and sometimes six-point restraints that often turned Hodges’ arm purple” as he “recover[ed] from surgery in an environment that often induce[d] psychotic outbursts and screams.” Necrosis also cost Hodges all use of his penis.

In January 2023, Gov. Bill Lee (R) suspended executions in the state and fired a pair of top DOC officials over botched execution drug protocols. [See: PLN, June 2023, p.30.] A bill to publicly disclose pharmacies compounding the drugs and another to add firing squads to the list of approved execution methods both died in the legislative session that ended in April 2023. But HB 1002 passed, allowing state Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti (R) to take over post-conviction proceedings in capital cases, presumably from local district attorneys he might find too squeamish about killing prisoners.

Additional sources: Nashville Tennessean, WTVF