Chattanooga attorney claims Jason Chen facing torture-like conditions at Silverdale Detention Center

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Law enforcement officers lead Jason Chen through the halls of the Hamilton County Courts Building to the courtroom for his preliminary hearing on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Law enforcement officers lead Jason Chen through the halls of the Hamilton County Courts Building to the courtroom for his preliminary hearing on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

The attorney for Jason Chen, the man facing murder charges in the death of Chattanooga woman Jasmine "Jazzy" Pace, is alleging his client has faced "appalling" conditions that amount to torture while at the Silverdale Detention Center.

Chattanooga attorney Josh Weiss said at different points since his November arrest, Chen has been without water, moved to a cell covered in feces, faced freezing cold temperatures and been denied toiletries.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office General Counsel Brian Bush has not responded to emailed questions sent June 26 and June 27 about Chen's treatment, the conditions at Silverdale, and the training of correctional officers when it comes to the treatment of inmates.

"I'm afraid that they're finding any way that they can to torture him," Weiss said by phone. "The egregiousness of the deprivation of the basic fundamental things that a correctional facility has to do, I would be surprised that Jason is not the only one that this is happening to."

Weiss said he's had to alert staff of problems with Chen's treatment at Silverdale at least four times. Each time, the problems have been addressed, but only after Weiss pointed out the problems, he said.

"It was not until I called were they 'aware' of the issue. This is truly unacceptable," Weiss said in an email late last month after he found out Chen allegedly had been without running water for three days.

"Jason went without water (including drinking water) for two and half days, even after complaining to the guards," Weiss said. "He was also unable to flush his toilet or use his sink."

Weiss said he has another client at Silverdale, but Chen is the only one experiencing such treatment.

Chen, 22, was arrested in late November at his parent's home in Nolensville, Tennessee, and has been held at Silverdale on a $5 million bond since his arrest. He was indicted on murder charges in Pace's death in March.

Pace's family reported her missing after she didn't show up for Thanksgiving dinner. Her body was found Dec. 1 near Suck Creek and appeared to have been stabbed around 60 times, Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Steven Cogswell testified at Chen's bond hearing. Investigators found traces of blood in Chen's apartment, according to a sworn affidavit from the Chattanooga Police Department.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Jason Chen's mother uses a tissue to wipe her face during court. Jason Chen's bond hearing was held Dec. 9, 2022, at the Hamilton County General Sessions Court.
 
 

Cold, dirty cells

In a Dec. 24 letter to Bush, Weiss alleged Chen had been kept in cold temperatures and was denied clothing and linens to keep him warm.

"Mr. Chen was brought out into the attorney-client meeting area wearing a short-sleeved red jumpsuit. He was visibly shivering and shaking, and his teeth were chattering hard enough that he could barely speak," Weiss' letter said, adding that temperatures had dipped to single digits and the wind chill made it feel colder. "I had to request a blanket to wrap around him just so he could speak coherently. The jail staff I saw were wearing multiple layers, jackets, and hats and here is my client, wearing a short-sleeved jumpsuit. This is unacceptable."

The letter, obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, said Chen was only allowed to wear a T-shirt and underwear while in his cell, which had air conditioning running in December. Chen was only given the short-sleeved jumpsuit to wear when he visited with his attorney, according to the letter.

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Weiss also said Chen did not have toiletries at one point.

"He has access to a shower, but he is not afforded a soap, shampoo or a towel," the letter said. "Therefore, if he wants to shower, he must either air dry in freezing cold temperatures or use his clothes or the sole blanket he is given. Again, because he is being refused access to the commissary, he also has no access to a toothbrush, toothpaste or a comb. Mr. Chen has lost about 20 pounds since coming into custody."

Weiss said earlier this month that while the December complaints had been addressed, Chen was then "inadvertently" placed in a dirty cell after that letter was sent.

"Just a couple weeks after that letter, I wrote an email to Sheriff (Austin) Garrett and Brian Bush informing them that his new cell has feces all over the walls and the floor, his toilet was clogged to the brim, the faucet does not have any water," Weiss said, adding he was told it would be days before the toilet could be fixed. "The smell was so strong, my client had to use a shirt to cover his face to be able to breathe.

"I was told that Mr. Chen was inadvertently placed in a cell that had not been cleaned after being dirtied by an inmate that previously occupied the cell," Weiss said. "How do you accidentally put someone in a cell like that?"

After the January email, Chen was placed in a clean, dry cell per Bush's request, Weiss said.

Weiss said there are two things Silverdale staff has done well: "One is feed him," Weiss said by phone. "And two, they have secluded him."

Chen is being kept in isolation for 23 hours a day, being let out for one hour to exercise and make phone calls to his family. Weiss said in a text message that Chen prefers being in isolation because he feels safer and is "afraid of being attacked."


Jail complaints

Conditions at Silverdale have been the subject of multiple lawsuits in recent months, alleging poor conditions, medical neglect and poor jail staff training.

In December, the Times Free Press reported on a video showing a dirty cell with broken lights and a bucket to catch water from a leak. The inmate in question unsuccessfully sought transfer to state custody. At a hearing, Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp called jail conditions "sufficient."

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

  photo  Staff file photo La Shawn Pagán / Jason Chen appears before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Boyd Patterson accompanied by his attorney Josh Weiss.