Hamilton County penal system issues echo criticisms in statewide prison audit

Hamilton County penal system issues echo criticisms in statewide prison audit

December 7th, 2017 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Subjects sit along the wall and lay on the floor as they wait to be assigned a cell upstairs at the Hamilton County Jail. Jail officials are currently seeking ways to alleviate overcrowding, which has been a problem for several years.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Between alleged poor medical care, limited access to legal materials and overcrowding, Hamilton County's penal system reflects some of the criticisms laid out in a recent audit of Tennessee's state prisons.

Stories of an untreated broken foot, denied prescription drugs and inconsistent responses to medical requests abound in the county's downtown jail and Silverdale Correctional Facility. Elsewhere, in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court, an inmate representing himself claims the guards at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex are hampering his constitutional right to access the law library.

A spokesman for the Hamilton County Jail said medical privacy laws prevent him from commenting on specific cases. As for Bledsoe, the guards constantly weigh a number of security concerns, but they aren't restricting access to the law library, which is open 37 1/2 hours a week under state policy, a Tennessee Department of Correction spokesman said.

Regardless, many local concerns echo a November audit from the Tennessee Comptroller questioning the correction department's ability to prepare offenders for re-entry.

One local judge is calling out Silverdale officials concerning their poor medical treatment.

One local judge is calling out Silverdale officials...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

State auditors outlined a number of problems at the privately operated Trousdale Turner Correctional Center: "Not enforcing class attendance; inaccurate record-keeping; limited access to grievance, medical, and sick call forms; and underperformed health screenings," and chalked it up to understaffing.

A bipartisan rebuke from state lawmakers followed, delaying the regular reauthorization of the correction department.

"There's been a lot of troubling stories altogether, particularly at the Trousdale facility, and the audit confirmed a lot of them," Tom Castelli, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, said. "But one of the things it does highlight is, ultimately, the TDOC is responsible for what goes on, whether it's their facility or privately run."

The Tennessee Department of Correction has about 21,000 inmates at 10 adult prisons, the audit says. People convicted of serious crimes in local jurisdictions usually serve their sentences at one of these facilities.

But its prisons aren't the only ones with issues.

MEDICAL ACCESS

Travis Alan Brenner was arrested before he was scheduled to return to Erlanger hospital for a follow-up surgery on a broken foot, his family says.

But since entering the Hamilton County Jail on Oct. 8, he hasn't seen a doctor.

First responders had to extricate 24-year-old Brenner from a friend's car after it crashed into a fire hydrant in East Ridge on Sept. 25. At the hospital, Erlanger staff outfitted Brenner with a cast and told him to return soon for surgery on his two broken bones, three fractures and one floating bone, his mother, Jennifer Waters, said.

Then on Oct. 8, Catoosa County, Ga., deputies said a vehicle was trying to outrun them on Interstate 75 from East Ridge, Hamilton County General Sessions Court records show. Chattanooga officers found Brenner in the passenger seat of a wrecked Chevrolet truck off Shallowford Road, said he tried to drive away and then said he tried to run when the engine didn't start.

Brenner's family disputes some of the facts, saying he couldn't possibly run with a broken foot. Since then, jail officials have propped Brenner up in a wheelchair but ignored his requests for gauze and Tylenol, said Ellen Brown, a longtime family friend.

"[Jail officials] told us twice he had doctor's appointments, and then they told us not to come up anymore," Brown said. "They said they couldn't tell us what the date was because of security reasons."

As of Wednesday afternoon, Waters said, "they never came and got him," but they hope medical attention is coming soon.

Matt Lea, a spokesman for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, said full-time Erlanger medical staff are located on the first floor of the downtown jail and are following protocol in Brenner's case.

When an inmate enters with injuries, staff members do "complete screenings" during the booking process, Lea said. If necessary, the staff immediately sends an inmate to Erlanger. Otherwise, they treat someone in-house, "according to Erlanger protocol," and schedule all appointments with the hospital, Lea said.

Erlanger gave Brenner a prescription for pain medication at one point, Brown said. But whether he could have gotten the prescription past the intake process at jail is uncertain.

Police vehicles line the street Wednesday, June 15, 2016, outside of the Hamilton County Jail.

Police vehicles line the street Wednesday, June 15,...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Durinda Waters said she took prescribed blood pressure medicine to her 58-year-old husband at the county jail after he was arrested Feb. 2 for a driving under the influence offense. Waters knew he needed the medicine but had no way to confirm he'd received it.

That was a Thursday.

Three days later, Waters said she got a call from an Erlanger nurse saying her husband had a seizure in jail.

"He takes two blood pressure medicines — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — as well as potassium," said Waters, a 59-year-old nurse who's been licensed to practice for 38 years. "He's been taking it since he was in his 20s. You can't stop meds like that."

Court records show Waters' husband pleaded guilty to the DUI and reported to Silverdale for 25 days in late October. Waters understood medical officials are wary of accepting unmarked prescription bottles from inmates, so she went to deliver the medicine herself.

But she had no luck during that visit.

"Oh, they don't get any meds at all until they're here for 30 days," she recalled one corrections officer saying.

Silverdale, which is operated by CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison companies, does not comment on individual medical cases. But according to court records, medical officials have acknowledged that it takes too long to get some inmates their prescribed medications, and they're reconsidering certain policies.

To survive, Waters' husband bought foods from the commissary with high levels of potassium to offset his change in medicine, she said. Until his Nov. 12 release, Waters said she prayed every night.

LEGAL ACCESS

Ever since he filed a lawsuit against the Tennessee Parole Board that also named Bledsoe's warden, 42-year-old Robert Z. Whipple said the guards have denied him and 120 or so inmates from accessing the law library. That area has legal texts and a computer terminal to search for specific cases, Whipple said, and they're essential because he's representing himself and has no other access to the courts.

"For some of these guys who are [representing themselves], it's hard to [fight a case] if they don't have access to legal material," said Steve Moore, a defense attorney who practices in Tennessee and Georgia. "And some of the federal courts have held it's a constitutional deprivation if they're denied that."

A spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Correction said he couldn't comment on Whipple's lawsuit, which is filed in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court, but he said no inmates in Whipple's containment area are being denied access to the law library.

In federal court records, Whipple said he is serving a 14-year sentence for a 2010 auto burglary and theft conviction in Knox County. He must pay filing fees within six months if he wants to continue his complaint, according to a judge's order in the case.

In Chattanooga, the downtown jail installed a kiosk that allows inmates to search digital legal cases, Lea said. A Silverdale spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment, but some former inmates and defense attorneys said Silverdale has a small library with no legal textbooks. If inmates want to research something on the computer, they have to fill out a request.

"The [downtown kiosk] seems to be a good tool," said defense attorney Robin Flores, "because they write down certain arguments, and then we go over it, and once in a while they come up with something. I'm happy to see the Sheriff has that.

"Silverdale, like I said, I've had clients complain to me about that."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.