Will Anyone Stand Up for Tennessee Inmates’ Civil Rights?

STATE OFFICIAL SENDS COMPLAINT BACK TO PRISON SYSTEM WHERE IT BEGAN

by Sharon Rondeau

(Nov. 3, 2015) — Over the last several months, The Post & Email has reported on abuses, assaults, gang uprisings, alleged civil rights violations and impending punishments taking place at the Northwest Correctional Complex (NWCX) in Tiptonville, TN as reported in correspondence from a number of inmates at the facility.

NWCX is reported to be one of the most dangerous prisons operated by the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC).

In July, inmate Jerome L. Johnson received a disciplinary write-up for refusing to take part in the Pro-Social Life Skills course resulting from his belief that the curriculum required him to admit to guilt. The proposed punishment to be meted out by prison staff includes ten days in solitary confinement, loss of earned privileges, a $5.00 fine, and the permanent loss of Mr. Johnson’s former job working in the kitchen.

The month prior, inmate Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III refused to participate in the course for the same reason, but his disciplinary write-up was abandoned.

Fitzpatrick has described a “prisoners-for-profit” enterprise operating within NWCX by its course instructors utilizing inmates to collect payments from the federal government.

Johnson reported that he had never received a disciplinary write-up during his three years in prison until refusing to enroll in Pro-Social Life Skills (PSLS).

Mr. Johnson is black, and Mr. Fitzpatrick is white. Johnson believes that he is the object of racial discrimination because of the two situations having been dealt with differently.  At one point last month, Fitzpatrick was allowed to complete a Form 3586, which indicates an inmate’s acceptance or declination of placement into an educational program. However, Johnson was obstructed from completing the same form and therefore sought external redress.

Following Johnson’s filing of a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Fitzpatrick was issued a second write-up for refusing to take the PSLS course, an action which Fitzpatrick has appealed on several levels.

Title VI states, in part:

Programs that receive Federal funds cannot distinguish among individuals on the basis of race, color or national origin, either directly or indirectly, in the types, quantity, quality or timeliness of program services, aids or benefits that they provide or the manner in which they provide them. This prohibition applies to intentional discrimination as well as to procedures, criteria or methods of administration that appear neutral but have a discriminatory effect on individuals because of their race, color, or national origin. Policies and practices that have such an effect must be eliminated unless a recipient can show that they were necessary to achieve a legitimate nondiscriminatory objective. Even if there is such a reason the practice cannot continue if there are alternatives that would achieve the same objectives but that would exclude fewer minorities.

Approximately six weeks ago, The Post & Email received a report from another inmate, race unknown, stating that a white gang member refused to share a cell with a black prisoner.  According to the inmate telling the story, a correction officer told him the white inmate that he would have to abandon his “hatred” of blacks and comply; however, several hours later, prison staff relocated the black inmate to accommodate the white inmate’s preference.

The white inmate was reportedly a member of the Aryan Nation gang. The inmate who wrote the letter claimed in an earlier correspondence that gang members wield more authority within the prison than the guards or warden.  He previously provided clear evidence that stab wounds incurred by eight individuals during a July 24, 2015 gang uprising at NWCX were entered into the computer system as “illness.”  The incidents were later reclassified as “assault” following a series of legislative subcommittee hearings on the reported dangerous conditions within Tennessee’s 13 prisons.

In addition to contacting the Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Justice, Johnson wrote to the Tennessee Human Rights Commission’s Title VI Compliance Program requesting a review of his complaint.  After contacting Justice, his correspondence was referred to Michael Alston of the Office of Civil Rights, Office of Justice Programs in Washington, DC.

The Civil Rights Division was formed as a result of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Mr. Johnson’s appeal of the write-up to Warden Mike Parris was denied, with the same result received from TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield, whose office is in Nashville.

Schofield faces mounting pressure to resign following the attrition of correction officers over the last year thought to have resulted from Schofield’s newly-implemented plan last summer to make it more difficult for overtime pay to begin accruing.  In two cases of which The Post & Email is aware, correction officers working double or even triple shifts have afterward attempted to drive home.  In in one instance, the officer was injured after losing control of his car, while in the other a 20-year-old correction officer was killed.

TDOC Communications Director Neysa Taylor provided no acknowledgment or response to The Post & Email’s request for comment on the fatal incident, which occurred in September.

Gov. Bill Haslam has defended Schofield’s performance, and a recent report issued by the American Correctional Association (ACA) after inspecting five Tennessee prisons indicated that they are “smoothly operating.”

Fitzpatrick has predicted that Schofield will be forced to resign his post at some point based on information Fitzpatrick is receiving from inside the prison.  Fitzpatrick correctly reported, before it was announced, that Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood would fully retire this year.

Blackwood had called Fitzpatrick “a moral coward” during a lengthy soliloquy on August 19, 2014, during Fitzpatrick’s sentencing hearing.

As the TDOC staffing crisis reached new levels over the last six months, The Tennessean, The Commercial Appeal, and WSMV-TV have issued reports on the issue, at times on a daily basis.

On October 20, 2015, a letter was sent to Johnson from Jennell Riddle, Title VI Compliance Review Coordinator for the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, referring the complaint back to the TDOC as “the responsible agency” to handle his complaint.

Riddle indicated that her letter was copied to the “Title  VI Coordinator” at the TDOC but did not provide the individual’s name.

On October 23, 2015, The Post & Email wrote to Alston detailing some of the many reports of corruption and abuse from NWCX inmates whose incarceration ultimately arises from corrupt grand juries, a revelation first made to us by Fitzpatrick in the fall of 2009.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, allegations of “human trafficking and involuntary servitude” are to be reported to the FBI, which Fitzpatrick has undertaken on numerous occasions without result.

One Response to "Will Anyone Stand Up for Tennessee Inmates’ Civil Rights?"

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