published Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Chattanooga area woman suing Silverdale Detention Center, claims abuse

A 53-year-old local woman has sued the private corporation that runs the Silverdale Detention Center, along with a Texas sheriff, after what she alleges was an illegal arrest followed by beatings at the center.

Attorneys for Donna L. Johnson filed the $500,000 lawsuit on Nov. 29 in federal and state courts. Corrections Corporation of America and Sheriff David Duke of Wichita County, Texas, have been served with notice of the lawsuit, court records show.

Duke said in a phone interview Friday that Johnson took money from officers in his department and others for photography work. She promised to return the finished photos in six weeks, and six months later wasn't responding to phone calls, he said.

Johnson's lawsuit claims she met Duke at a Houston law enforcement convention in early 2011. She was offering to photograph sheriffs' staff through her company, Cherokee Studios.

Later, Duke contacted her and asked her to photograph his staff. She arrived at the Wichita County Sheriff's Office on July 23, 2011, and photographed the staff from July 25-28. Then she returned to Hamilton County to process orders, the lawsuit states.

Business closes

In September 2011, Johnson closed her business and got work with a local staffing company to pay for continued work on photo orders from her summer's work, the suit states. Johnson says she told Duke and his staff about processing delays each month until November.

Duke said Johnson quit returning phone calls for long periods and offered multiple excuses for delays in completing the job. He later learned other police departments in Texas were having the same problem getting their photos.

After lengthy delays and no contact, the sheriff had felony theft charges filed against Johnson.

On Nov. 30, a Hamilton County deputy arrested Johnson on a fugitive warrant for the charges in Wichita County, Texas.

That's when Silverdale became involved in the lawsuit's allegations.

Johnson claims that while she was in custody at the local, privately run jail, corrections staff "threatened her with sexual assault for allegedly victimizing a law enforcement agency."

She also alleges that she became ill at Silverdale and needed medical treatment at Parkridge Medical Center. Johnson claims that guards "hog-tied" her, shoved her in the back of a van and punched and kicked her repeatedly in the groin area, causing internal injuries.

CCA responds

Corrections Corporation of America spokesman Steve Owen said the company has begun to look at the allegations but they "have not found any evidence that what's alleged [in the lawsuit] has occurred."

He said the facility does not transport inmates to Parkridge but to Erlanger hospital.

"We do take any allegation like that seriously," Owen said Friday. "We're committed to the safety and dignity of every inmate that comes into our care, and we take a zero-tolerance policy on anything that deviates from that standard."

Johnson's photo equipment was seized and sent to Texas upon her arrest. The theft charges were dismissed by a Wichita County magistrate on Feb. 9, 2012.

Duke said her attorneys and the Texas district attorney agreed to drop the charges if she completed the paid orders once her equipment had been returned. The sheriff said the charges were dropped before all of the orders could be inventoried and some officers never received photographs for which they'd paid.

In her lawsuit, Johnson is seeking at least $500,000 in damages, payment of future medical bills and attorney's fees.

Joseph Dickson, one of Johnson's two attorneys, said Thursday that the complaint speaks for itself and declined to comment about specifics of the case.

"We're going through the proper procedures in both state and federal court," Dickson said.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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