CLEVELAND, Tenn. — When Sheriff Eric Watson took nine felons to church in May 2017, they essentially disappeared without a trace from the Bradley County Jail.
The jail has no records showing the nine men, whose crimes ranged from manufacturing methamphetamine to burglary, aggravated assault and vehicular homicide, had been taken outside the facility or brought back.
The sheriff's office said Watson and four others, plus a K-9, escorted the prisoners to and from Council Baptist Church in Charleston, Tenn., on May 21, 2017.
But even though all transports are required to be reported to dispatch, there's no record at the Bradley 911 Center that anyone was hauling prisoners that day.
At church, the sheriff called them "former prisoners" who had straightened out their lives through the jail's faith-based programs. Photos Watson posted on Facebook showed them in civilian clothes, mingling with the congregation, with no signs of shackles or guards nearby.
A local political action committee supporting Watson's election opponent outed the men as current prisoners. The group, Christians for Accountable Leadership, said the sheriff "deceived and misled" Bradley County citizens and endangered public safety.
The sheriff then said the men were were trusties, inmates with permission to work either inside or outside the facility, but it wasn't always clear what their jobs were. Two were assigned to the garage, three to work in the halls and four had no designated assignment, according to sheriff's office records. The Tennessee Corrections Institute, which monitors and certifies county jails, requires that "Facilities shall maintain custody records on all inmates [including] work assignments."
The Times Free Press wanted to know how often those men went outside the jail in 2017, where they went and what they did. The newspaper submitted a request under Tennessee's Open Records Act on March 9.
In response, the sheriff's office said there was no practical way to find that out.
There's no sign-out sheet or computer registry showing when prisoners leave and come back to the jail, or their names, the sheriff's office said. The only records are kept by corrections officers, who fill out daily logs detailing what happens from roll call until their shift ends, according to Lt. James E. Bradford Jr., communications director for the sheriff's office.
Bradford said those paper sheets are filed by officer name. To find out whether an inmate went out on a given day, you'd have to know what housing pod the inmate is in, get the names of corrections officer working in the pod and go through their daily logs — a logistical nightmare.
The Times Free Press then asked for officer logs for May 21, 2017, the date of the church outing, and July 4, 2017, the date of the annual fireworks festival put on by Bradley County Commissioner Howard Thompson and supported by the sheriff's office.
The sheriff's office on Friday said there were no officer logs for any of the nine inmates who went on the church trip. Neither Watson nor Bradford responded Friday to emailed follow-up questions about the records.
The information from the sheriff's office included two officer logs for July 4, 2017. Neither gave the names of any of the inmates out of the jail that day.
The log by an officer named Randolph had this entry at 18:20 (6:20 p.m.): "Confirmation of L Dorm 19/34 15 I/M out to work tri-state fireworks show. All appears safe." Randolph meant that 15 of the dorm's 34 inmates were out on the work detail.
Lt. Carol Edward's log noted "Garage crew back" in L Dorm at 23:02 (just after 11 p.m.). She wrote they were strip-searched, with no contraband found.
There was no information on what work the inmates were doing at the show, which draws tens of thousands of local residents every year. More than two dozen Bradley County Sheriff's Office employees were present, and a Facebook Live video showed Watson showing the department's special response trucks to the public.
Among all those law officers, however, trusty Juan Torres managed to escape attention and get hold of a young woman and a camera. He posted two photos to Facebook showing him wearing civilian clothes, posing with the woman and grinning. Across a gravel road behind him, Watson is seen talking to people near a SWAT vehicle.
Torres, one of the inmates on the church trip, was tossed from the trusty program for unauthorized use of a computer. Two others who made the trip, Johnny Mac Self and Joshua Martin, were kicked out of the program on July 29, 2017.
Sources inside the sheriff's office told the newspaper both men failed a drug test after being outside the jail. Those sources also said corrections officers found a fist-sized rock of methamphetamine cached outside a door the trusties use.
The sheriff's office refused to say why Self and Martin lost their trusty status, citing the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protecting inmate medical information.
An open-records expert was skeptical of that claim.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Nashville-based Tennessee Commission for Open Government, said she's never heard of using HIPAA to suppress information about a failed drug test.
"HIPAA is about your personal medical record. This is a drug test that was done by the government for a government purpose. It wasn't a personal medical procedure, it has nothing to do with their particular health, it is simply a drug test done in custody," Fisher said.
Such information is routinely public in other circumstances, such as when a person is charged with violating probation.
"And it seems like it has some kind of bearing on the trusty program itself," Fisher said. "The open records laws are really supposed to help citizens hold government accountable, so it seems like some sort of information should be released."
Asked for comment, PAC spokesman Joshua Standifer said, "The continued discoveries started by Christians For Accountable Leadership's research proves that Mr. Watson is leading the public down a dark path.
" We have officially reached the ultimate low: begging our sheriff to keep inmates behind bars and not around our children."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.