After pleading guilty to assaulting an inmate and admitting to covering up the incident, two former Tennessee correctional officers were sentenced Thursday to a year in federal prison plus three years of supervised release. Four other correctional officers have also pled guilty to similar charges of violating the inmate’s civil rights and failing to notify authorities.
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 the inmate swung his bloody hand towards the officers, Spurlin covered the lens of the surveillance camera with his hand as York punched R.T. approximately 30 times. Penwell later recalled punching R.T. several times in the head after York ordered Penwell to “get him.”
Instead of fighting back, the inmate spat blood on Griffin’s chest and arm. In retaliation, Griffin repeatedly punched R.T. before leaving the cell.
After the assault, Cpl. Morris ordered the 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.
On August 15, 2019, Griffin pleaded guilty to using unlawful force on an inmate, while Penwell pled guilty to a similar charge in September 2019. On Thursday, Griffin and Penwell were both sentenced to a year and a day in prison plus three years of supervised release.
“When correctional officers abuse their authority, they erode the public’s trust in law enforcement and that is unacceptable,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “No correctional officer is above the law and the Justice Department will not tolerate any civil rights violations.”
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee will continue to prioritize the criminal prosecution of public employees who violate the civil rights of others,” Acting U.S. Attorney Joseph Murphy Jr. stated in a recent press release. “Our goal is to ensure that everyone – no matter who they are or their standing in the community – is treated in accordance with the requirements of the US Constitution by public officials.”
“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,” noted Special Agent in Charge Douglas Korneski of the FBI Memphis Field Office. “These sentences should send a clear message that the FBI makes it a priority to bring to justice any law enforcement officer who violates the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect.”
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 was given 10 months’ probation at his sentencing hearing in February.
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.
In June 2020, York pleaded guilty to violating the inmate’s civil rights and conspiring to cover up the incident. On April 30, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
In November 2020, Morris pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and conspiring to cover up the incident. On May 7, he was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and two years supervised release.