Prison death cover-up al­leged at leg­isla­tive hear­ing

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - Dave Boucher Nashville Ten­nessean USA TO­DAY NET­WORK - TEN­NESSEE

NASHVILLE – Ten­nessee’s top prison of­fi­cial promised state law­mak­ers Mon­day he would re­view the cir­cum­stances of the death of an in­mate in 2013 af­ter a com­mit­tee heard tes­ti­mony deemed “shock­ing” by one law­maker.

The vow came Mon­day af­ter­noon amid a hear­ing in­tended to dis­cuss the fu­ture of pri­vate prison over­sight. Dur­ing the hear­ing, a nurse who pre­vi­ously worked at a state prison ac­cused prison of­fi­cials of cov­er­ing up a homi­cide.

“Based on what I’ve heard here to­day and solely from the tes­ti­mony that was heard here, ob­vi­ously I would be con­cerned and have ques­tions. I plan on go­ing back and re­view­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion ...” Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion Com­mis­sioner Tony Parker said.

The al­le­ga­tions date back to the 2013 death of an in­mate at a state-run prison, but were ref­er­enced in the con­text of more need for gen­eral over­sight of all Ten­nessee pris­ons.

The House Op­er­a­tions Com­mit­tee ap­peared to hear the con­cerns of for­mer in­mates, of­fi­cers, their fam­i­lies and ad­vo­cates. The com­mit­tee voted to amend over­sight leg­is­la­tion, propos­ing the depart­ment be au­tho­rized for two years, not four years.

The bill also in­cludes a built-in state au­dit set to com­mence later this year.

In ap­prov­ing the bill, the com­mit­tee’s de­ci­sion con­tin­ues leg­isla­tive de­bate over the ac­tions of prison lead­er­ship in Ten­nessee.

‘If you value your jobs, you’ll shut your mouths’

Leg­is­la­tors de­layed tak­ing ac­tion on the bill last week af­ter hear­ing from pri­vate prison of­fi­cials and ad­vo­cates who want ad­di­tional over­sight.

Be­fore vot­ing Mon­day, they heard from peo­ple with loved ones in prison or for­mer cor­rec­tional em­ploy­ees.

That in­cluded Jes­sica Jobes, a for­mer nurse who worked at West Ten­nessee State Pen­i­ten­tiary. Her voice shak­ing, she de­scribed in vivid de­tail what she called the state cov­er­ing up the death of an in­mate in 2013.

“I want you to know that ev­ery bit of it hap­pened and I was there to wit­ness it that day,” Jobes told law­mak­ers.

A Ten­nessean in­ves­ti­ga­tion in 2015 found doc­u­men­ta­tion show­ing a med­i­cal ex­am­iner deemed the death of 55-year-old El­bert Thorn­ton as “sus­pi­cious, un­usual or un­nat­u­ral.” An au­topsy de­ter­mined at the time of his death, Thorn­ton had bro­ken ribs, a bro­ken col­lar bone and sig­nif­i­cant ad­di­tional trauma in­clud­ing third-de­gree burns on his gen­i­tals.

Jobes said prison of­fi­cials told em­ploy­ees to down­play what hap­pened.

“If you value your jobs, you’ll shut your mouths,” Jobes said, re­count­ing what she said a prison in­ves­ti­ga­tor told her while look­ing in to Thorn­ton’s death.

At the time, depart­ment spokes­woman Neysa Tay­lor hinted med­i­cal is­sues may have played a role in Thorn­ton’s death and down­played the re­sults of the au­topsy.

“If I had blunt force trauma, you would as­sume I was beat up. But I could have fallen out of bed,” Tay­lor said.

Jobes said she spoke with the FBI about her case, and is not sure if the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is open. Rep. John Ra­gan, an Oak Ridge Repub­li­can who led the dis­cus­sion on au­tho­riz­ing the depart­ment, cut short law­maker’s ques­tions of Jobe be­cause he said he didn’t want to jeop­ar­dize a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Law­mak­ers pressed Parker and other depart­ment of­fi­cials about the al­le­ga­tions. Parker promised to re­view the sub­stance of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, adding he per­son­ally has not been con­tacted by the FBI.

Parker said he would ask the ap­pli­ca­ble cor­rec­tions em­ploy­ees if they ever spoke with the FBI about this case.

House Gov­ern­ment Op­er­a­tions Com­mit­tee Jeremy Fai­son, R-Cosby, said he was un­fa­mil­iar with Thorn­ton’s case un­til read­ing a copy of the Ten­nessean in­ves­ti­ga­tion dur­ing Mon­day’s hear­ing.

“I be­lieve that Com­mis­sioner Parker will open up an in­ves­ti­ga­tion on that. And if that man’s death was not jus­ti­fied through nat­u­ral causes, the peo­ple who hur­ried his death will be pun­ished to the full ex­tent of the law,” Fai­son said af­ter the hear­ing.

Thorn­ton’s daugh­ter, Te­lesa Anderson, ini­tially filed le­gal ac­tion in 2013. Her case is still pend­ing be­fore the Ten­nessee Claims Com­mis­sion. Anderson’s at­tor­ney did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Scathing au­dit prompted ini­tial leg­isla­tive ire

The de­bate on au­tho­riz­ing the depart­ment heated up in De­cem­ber, af­ter the state comp­trol­ler found gangs and in­suf­fi­cient staffing plagued the Trous­dale Turner Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter. Dur­ing the same hear­ing, a for­mer cor­rec­tional of­fi­cer at the fa­cil­ity said she wit­nessed two in­mates die due to med­i­cal neg­li­gence.

Pri­vate prison op­er­a­tor CoreCivic and the depart­ment said they in­ves­ti­gated the state­ments from the for­mer of­fi­cer and found them un­sub­stan­ti­ated. They de­clined to im­me­di­ately pro­vide de­tails of their in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but CoreCivic said the for­mer of­fi­cer re­fused to co­op­er­ate with their in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The largest pri­vate prison in the state, Trous­dale re­mains tor­mented by is­sues that have re­mained con­sis­tent since it opened in early 2016.

By May 2016, the state forced Trous­dale to tem­porar­ily stop ac­cept­ing new in­mates due to “se­ri­ous is­sues” rang­ing from in­ad­e­quate staffing and soli­tary con­fine­ment prob­lems to al­le­ga­tions of ex­ces­sive force.

Last week, Trous­dale War­den Rusty Wash­burn ac­knowl­edged the state has fined his prison more than $2 mil­lion this year, in re­la­tion to prob­lems with in­mate ac­cess to health care and other is­sued raised in the 2017 au­dit.

On Mon­day, Tay­lor con­firmed the state fined Trous­dale $2.2 mil­lion in March, in ad­di­tion to $322,000 in fines from late 2017.

The Sen­ate al­ready ap­proved a mea­sure au­tho­riz­ing the depart­ment for four years. Both cham­bers must ap­prove the same leg­is­la­tion in or­der for it to be­come law.

Reach Dave Boucher at 615-25-8992, dboucher@ten­ and on Twit­ter @Dave_Boucher1.

Dur­ing a heated leg­isla­tive hear­ing Mon­day, Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion Com­mis­sioner Tony Parker vowed to re­view de­tails of the 2013 death of an in­mate. A nurse who for­mally worked at a West Ten­nessee prison ac­cused the depart­ment of cov­er­ing up a mur­der. SHEL­LEY MAYS/THE TEN­NESSEAN

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