3 Hamilton County corrections officers facing internal inquiry

3 Hamilton County corrections officers facing internal inquiry

October 1st, 2011 by Kate Harrison Belz in News

Three Hamilton County corrections officers are suspended amid allegations that one carried on a months-long relationship with an inmate and another two "roughed up" an inmate during booking.

Jail Chief Ron Parson said an internal affairs investigation into the relationship between a female corrections officer and an inmate was launched Friday.

"We intercepted some phone call conversations between her and an inmate that were sexual in nature," Parson said. "We soon found out that this had been going on for months."

Investigators will review tapes of phone calls made from the inmate to the officer's cell phone that date back to May, Parson said.

The two male jailers were suspended after allegations surfaced that they had been too rough with an inmate charged with public intoxication as they took him to a holding cell last week.

"The entire incident is caught on tape," said Parson. "It shows what happened pretty clearly."

Parson said he could not elaborate about what the tape shows until the internal affairs investigation is complete. He doesn't understand why the officers behaved improperly while knowing they were being recorded.

"In the phone calls, a voice cuts in to warn that the calls are being recorded," he said. "I think it's possible they got so caught up that they just forgot they could get caught."

Parson said jail policy prohibits jailers from developing any kind of romantic relationship with inmates.

Sheriff Jim Hammond was out of town Friday and could not be reached for comment.

The suspensions bring the total number of corrections officers at the county jail on paid leave to four.

Corrections officer Jerry Melbert also is on leave after a Chattanooga Police Department officer arrested him in July after he was accused of molesting a woman on the dance floor of The Palms on Shallowford Road.

Melbert, who has charged with assault and sexual battery, is set to appear before Hamilton County General Sessions Judge Christine Mahn Sell on Wednesday.

Sheriff's office spokeswoman Janice Atkinson said the outcome of the court case would determine the status of his employment with the department.

Having four officers on suspension puts the jail "in a bind right now," Parson said. There are 113 corrections officers on staff, and the jail population has exceeded its capacity of 487 for years.

In August, Chief Magistrate Larry Ables sent a letter to Hammond, expressing concerns with what appeared to be an overworked and understaffed department, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press archives.

"The current shortage of staff has led to an increase in overtime hours and overworked employees," Ables wrote. "I see corrections officers who work two shifts in a row and then come back the next day to do the same thing all over again."

Ables also noted that the state has suggested the jail's first-floor intake and booking area be staffed with nine to 11 officers per shift, but said the jail is only operating three to five officers per shift.

"Without time to unwind these officers are at risk of harming themselves or others," he wrote.

The next academy for corrections officers begins Oct. 24. Ten officers will be put through the program.

Parson said that, despite the current shortage, he has no qualms about losing staff to behavioral investigations.

"I don't care if we have to suspend the whole jail staff. We're not going to tolerate behavior like this," he said. "I don't care what an inmate's charges are. Jailers are supposed to show respect and do their job."