Accused of watching several officers assault an inmate and encouraging them to write false reports in order to cover up the incident, a sixth Tennessee correctional officer recently pleaded guilty to obstruction and conspiring to cover up the beating. The other five guards have pled guilty to assault and similar conspiracy charges.
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.
Accounts differ as to whether the inmate swung his bloody hand towards the officers or spat at them, but the officers agreed that York ordered Spurlin to “violate the camera.” Spurlin initially hesitated and glanced at Cpl. Morris 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.
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, Morris ordered the correctional officers to falsely report that R.T. had injured himself on suicide watch in the mental health unit. The officers agreed to cover up the unlawful use of force on the inmate.
Morris knew that the officers’ use of force should be reported to TDOC authorities, but he did not report the incident, fill out any paperwork, or instruct any of the other officers to take those steps. Instead, when a junior correctional officer asked Morris if he needed to fill out any paperwork, Morris falsely claimed that it would be handled and there was no need to do anything.
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.
In June, York pleaded guilty to violating the inmate’s civil rights and conspiring to cover up the incident. He faces 10 years imprisonment for the civil rights offense and 5 years imprisonment for the conspiracy offense.
On Tuesday, Morris pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and conspiring to cover up the incident. The maximum penalty for the conspiracy offense is five years imprisonment and 20 years imprisonment for the obstruction offense.
“The State of Tennessee entrusted this defendant with the responsibility to act lawfully as a corrections officer by supervising those in his chain of command and by treating inmates humanely and in a manner that complies with the U.S. Constitution and other laws,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division in a press release. “Instead of acting lawfully, this defendant violated the public trust, stood by and did nothing as junior officers unjustly beat an inmate, lied repeatedly about the beating, and tried to persuade other corrections officers to lie about what happened. This defendant’s criminal misconduct violates both our law and common decency, and the U.S. Department of Justice will not stand for it.”
“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 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.”
“When a correctional officer violates the civil rights of an inmate whose safety he is charged with, it undermines the respect and reputation of all law enforcement officers,” asserted Douglas Korneski, Special Agent in Charge of the Memphis Field Office of the FBI.
Spurlin and Griffin are currently scheduled for separate sentencing hearings in January, while Penwell’s sentencing is scheduled for February 2021.