A third former Tennessee correctional officer pleaded guilty to a federal offense and admitted concealing other correctional officers’ assault of an inmate by covering up a prison security camera with his hand. Three out of at least five correctional officers have pleaded guilty to federal charges, while the remaining officers remain unidentified.
On February 1, Carl Spurlin Jr., Tanner Penwell, Nathaniel Griffin, and two other correctional officers at the Northwest County Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tennessee, identified only as C.M. and J.Y. entered the cell of R.T., an inmate in the mental health unit. Labeled as a suicide risk, R.T. was reportedly already bleeding before the five correctional officers entered his cell.
After R.T. swung his bloody hand towards the officers nearest him, flinging blood in their direction, J.Y. ordered Spurlin to “violate the camera.” Spurlin initially hesitated before deciding to cover the surveillance camera with his hand.
With Spurlin blocking the camera, J.Y allegedly struck R.T. more than 20 times. Penwell later admitted to punching R.T. several times in the head after J.Y. ordered Penwell to “get him.”
Throughout the time he was being punched by the correctional officers, R.T. sat on the bench in the cell and only used his arms to cover his face in an attempt to protect his face from the correctional officers’ punches. According to the Justice Department, at no point did R.T. attempt to fight back.
Griffin recalled C.M. handing him paper towels and wetting them in the sink before giving them to Spurlin. Spurlin used the wet paper towels to continue covering up the camera.
After J.Y. and Penwell stopped hitting R.T., the inmate suddenly spat blood on Griffin’s chest and arm. In retaliation, Griffin repeatedly punched R.T. before leaving the cell.
Outside of the cell, their supervisor allegedly ordered the correctional officers to falsely report that R.T. had injured himself on suicide watch in the mental health unit.
On August 15, Griffin pleaded guilty to using unlawful force on an inmate. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison.
In September, Penwell pleaded guilty to using unlawful force on an inmate. He also faces up to 10 years in prison.
On Wednesday, Spurlin pleaded guilty to knowing of a federal felony, failing to notify authorities of the felony, and taking an affirmative step to conceal the felony. He faces up to three years in federal prison.
“Correctional officers must abide by and adhere to the same laws they take an oath to uphold and enforce. Instead of serving and protecting the public, this officer actively participated to conceal the use of physical force by other officers to violate the civil rights of an individual. As a result, he will now be held accountable, vividly illustrating that no one is above the law,” U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant for the Western District of Tennessee said in a recent statement.
“When correctional officers abuse their authority and harm inmates, it not only violates our civil rights laws, it undermines the criminal justice system as a whole,” stated M.A. Myers, Special Agent in Charge of the Memphis Field Office of the FBI. “This plea should send a clear message that the FBI takes these allegations seriously, and will vigorously investigate these kinds of cases, and those who violate the public’s trust will be held accountable.”
Spurlin’s sentencing is scheduled for January 15, 2020. Griffin and Penwell are scheduled for sentencing in November.
The Justice Department has not announced criminal charges against the other correctional officers involved in the assault against R.T.