A fifth Tennessee correctional officer pleaded guilty Tuesday to using unlawful force on an inmate and then conspiring to cover up the incident. Four other officers involved have pled guilty to similar charges for their roles in the attack.
On February 1, 2019, officers Jonathan York, Carl Spurlin Jr., Tanner Penwell, Nathaniel Griffin, and Corporal Tommy Morris at the Northwest County Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tennessee, entered the cell of R.T., an inmate in the mental health unit, as Officer Cadie McAlister watched. 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 toward the officers nearest him, flinging blood in their direction, York ordered Spurlin to “violate the camera.” Spurlin initially hesitated before deciding to cover the surveillance camera with his hand.
With Spurlin blocking the camera, York punched R.T. approximately 30 times. Penwell later admitted to punching R.T. several times in the head after York 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 head from the correctional officers’ fists. According to the Justice Department, at no point did R.T. attempt to fight back.
Griffin recalled Corporal Morris 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 York 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. When York spoke to other staff members immediately after the incident, he did not provide complete information about what happened inside R.T.’s cell.
On August 15, 2019, Griffin pleaded guilty to using unlawful force on an inmate. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison.
In September 2019, Penwell pleaded guilty to using unlawful force on an inmate. He also faces up to 10 years in prison.
In October 2019, 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.
On November 20, 2019, McAlister pleaded guilty to knowing of a federal felony, failing to notify authorities of the felony, and taking an affirmative step to conceal the felony. The maximum penalty for this offense is three years of imprisonment.
The next day, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging York and Morris with federal civil rights, conspiracy, and obstruction offenses. On Tuesday, York pleaded guilty to violating the inmate’s civil rights and conspiring to cover up the incident.
“The Justice Department does not tolerate assault by correctional officers of the people they are charged with protecting,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division in a recent press release. “We work tirelessly to protect the civil rights of all citizens.”
“Correctional officers must abide by and adhere to the same laws they take an oath to uphold and enforce,” stated U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant for the Western District of Tennessee. “Instead of serving and protecting the public, this officer used unlawful and excessive physical force to violate the civil rights of an individual by repeatedly punching and injuring him.”
The maximum penalty is 10 years imprisonment for the civil rights offense and 5 years imprisonment for the conspiracy offense. Sentencing for York is currently set to take place on January 5, 2021.
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