Hamilton County man’s vision was damaged after alleged use of force in county jail

Staff Photo / A van is received by a guard at the Silverdale Detention Center, since renamed the Hamilton County Jail, in 2020 in Chattanooga. Ronald Wesley Spence Jr. alleges he was beat up and slammed into a door last year by a staff member while in the Hamilton County Jail.
Staff Photo / A van is received by a guard at the Silverdale Detention Center, since renamed the Hamilton County Jail, in 2020 in Chattanooga. Ronald Wesley Spence Jr. alleges he was beat up and slammed into a door last year by a staff member while in the Hamilton County Jail.


A Hamilton County man is accusing current and former Sheriff's Office staff of using excessive force during an incident, causing him to lose vision in his left eye while in custody at the county jail.

Ronald Wesley Spence Jr. alleges he was beat up and slammed into a door last year by a staff member at the Hamilton County Jail, the complaint states. Spence's attorneys, who filed the federal lawsuit Feb. 6., argue their client's constitutional rights were violated.

The defendants listed in the lawsuit include the county, Sheriff Austin Garrett and multiple former or current Sheriff's Office/jail employees.

Jonathan Cleary and Christian Johnson, the attorneys representing Spence, are requesting a jury trial and not less than $2 million — $1 million for constitutional violations and compensatory and actual damages and $1 million for punitive damages.

Cleary and Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.

There were sustained allegations of policy violations and use of force involved in this incident, Brian Bush, general counsel for the Sheriff's Office, said via email.

Two Sheriff's Office employees were involved in the encounter that allegedly caused the injury. Due to the nature of the incident, Garrett directed internal affairs to conduct an investigation, and both parties were immediately placed on administrative leave, Bush said.

One of the employees resigned during the investigation, Bush said. A pretermination hearing was scheduled for the other in July, but he resigned one day prior.

However, a hearing was held in his absence, during which Garrett determined the man's employment with the Sheriff's Office would have been terminated had he not resigned, Bush said. Neither man is eligible for rehire, Bush said.

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The central incident happened Feb. 7, 2023.

Spence was scheduled to be transferred to a different area in the jail that day, the complaint states.

One of the employees was assigned to move Spence but told him to change clothes before the transfer.

Spence allegedly asked why he needed to change clothes, which prompted the employee to put him in handcuffs, the complaint states.

Without warning, the employee allegedly began to beat Spence and slam him into a door. Spence escaped and ran into a hallway to call for help, the complaint states.

The second employee was in that hall, and Spence allegedly called for protection.

Rather than render aid, the second employee proceeded to drag Spence into another room and stood by while the first employee entered the room to further assault Spence, the complaint states.

Spence suffered injuries to his body and face that allegedly damaged his vision. He was placed in solitary confinement following the alleged assault without treatment for his injuries and without a way to contact authorities.

He eventually received eye drops from a nurse and a steroid shot for his eye, the complaint states.

Spence also accused several other staff members of assaulting him on two separate occasions, the complaint states. In a fourth incident, a staff member allegedly allowed multiple inmates from Spence's cell block into Spence's cell to assault him.

These incidents allegedly exacerbated his previous injuries and caused new ones.

"The force used was excessive and intended to punish plaintiff on all alleged dates," the complaint states. "The defendant officers' actions were calculated, intentional and not objectively reasonable considering all the facts and circumstances."

Attorneys for Spence argue the Sheriff's Office has inadequate training for jail officers, a lack of adequate supervision and failures in its policies and customs, the complaint states. They also allege Spence experienced deliberate indifference to his medical needs and was a victim of assault and battery.

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Garrett referred the Feb. 7, 2023, incident involving the employees who resigned to Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp for review, Bush said. Wamp then passed along the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office for review.

Spence is facing 10 charges, including attempted first-degree murder and especially aggravated kidnapping, according to the Hamilton County Criminal Court website. His next court date is scheduled for Monday.

Contact Sofia Saric at ssaric@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.


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