by Sharon Rondeau

(Jun. 14, 2016) — Last week, The Post & Email learned of an inmate at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP) who was reportedly pummeled into unconsciousness by as many as six heavily-defended correction officers after the inmate broke a window.

WTSP is run by the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC), which has just been appointed a new commissioner following the resignation of Commissioner Derrick Schofield, who was criticized for many of the decisions he made during his five-year tenure.

The inmate, John McCloud, has a history of psychological and possibly psychiatric issues, according to his mother, Rita Vickery, with whom The Post & Email spoke last week.

Some weeks ago, Vickery received an undated letter from her son describing the incident to the best of his ability.  “John can barely read or write,” Vickery told us during our interview.

Vickery said she has called WTSP for more information but that they “won’t tell me anything.”

For four years, Vickery worked as a jailer in the Sumner County jail where her son was housed for a time.

On Tuesday, The Post & Email attempted to call Warden Jonathan Lebo’s office to ask about the incident but was put through a litany of menus which prompted the caller to leave a message or speak with the operator.  When selecting the latter, the system responded that the operator was “busy right now” and that the voice mail system was full and could not accept messages.

When we asked for a directory by pressing “star” and entered the first three letters of Lebo’s last name as instructed, the system said that there is “no such name” in the prison directory.

The Post & Email’s initial source for the story related that McCloud had had $150 deposited into his inmate account, which was corroborated by Vickery.  The source reported that “by state law, TDOC officials are allowed to garnish monies the state claims owed for reasons such as court costs and restitution fees,” but in an amount “no more than 50%” of the amount in the account.

“Mr. McCloud owes restitution,” we were told, but “State TDOC officials took all of the $150.00.”

“John broke a window out of indignant frustration…In retaliation, five or six WTSP/TDOC correctional officers attacked Mr. McCloud in his housing Unit #6 cell just past midnight on April 9, 2016,” the source said.

Our source was not an eyewitness to the reported attack but related it as told to him by McCloud at the end of April.  Continuing, our source said [“CO” stands for “correction officer(s)”]:

Mr. McCloud’s attackers wore body armor (Kevlar).  They wore special gloves with reinforced Kevlar knuckles. All the TDOC/WTSP CO [sic] wore face shields as an accessory to the Kevlar body armor and reinforced, raised, hardened punching gloves.

The TDOC assault team beat Mr. McCloud furiously about the head and neck, knocking him out unconscious.  His face was badly bruised.

The source then provided the names of three correctional officers alleged to have taken part in the beating, then continued:

In fear of his life, Mr. McCloud declared himself a “suicide risk” when he recovered consciousness.  Doing so gets men moved into the mental ward of the WTSP Site II medical services building.  Mr. McCloud is still incarcerated in the infirmary as of this writing.

Describing the conditions of the “mental ward,” the source said:

Men declared suicide risks are stripped naked and locked down in stripped-down cells alone but under heavy observation.  The bare bones cells are very cold.  You can hang meat in them.  The naked men are given only paper or light cloth dresses to cover themselves which are called “turtle shells.”  No blanket is provided.  There is no bed — no bunk — no rack.  The men sleep on the floor.  They are provided — sometimes, not always — with Kapoc-filled mattresses [sic].

Unfamiliar with the term “Kapoc,” The Post & Email found that “organic Kapok” is “harvested from the fluffy fiber surrounding the seeds of the tropical kapok tree (ceiba pentandra). Also known as ‘silk cotton,’ kapok is the lightest natural fiber in the world, with a density nearly five times as light as cotton.”

The source told us that McCloud “is not able to get a letter out to you” at this time, which coincided with Vickery’s report of having sent letters to her son over the last several weeks, along with another relative, to which neither has received a response.

Vickery told The Post & Email that after her son’s trial on assault charges in Sumner County, “The public defenders, the ones who are appointed, are not worth anything.  The one he had didn’t work for him.  I sat there in court — they didn’t know who I was at the time — and watched him and the DA, when my son left the courtroom, laughing with each other.”

The Post & Email has received several eyewitness accounts following trials in other Tennessee counties of prosecutors and defense attorneys congratulating one another.

Over the last nearly-seven years, The Post & Email has exposed corruption within Tennessee’s grand juries, judiciary, executive branch, and prison system without a single refutation from a government agent.  Vickery believes that Tennessee public defenders are “paid off” to toe the government line.

She also believes that those without significant means are brushed aside by Tennessee attorneys.

Regarding her son’s history, Vickery told us:

He started kindergarten, and after two weeks, they expelled him and told me not to bring him back until he had seen a psychiatrist and was on medication.  It’s been non-stop treatment, counseling; he’s been in placement…I’ve tried everything from Memphis to Cookville.

When he turned 18, he quit school and quit taking his medication.  He just turned 30.

The Post & Email asked, “Do you know if they’re giving him any medication in prison?” to which she responded, “He refuses medication.”  She continued:

When I spoke with his lawyer – and this shows how much he doesn’t care – I told him I wanted him in a prison for people with mental health problems, and there was a special prison in Tennessee for that.  But no.  The jail couldn’t wait for him to get sentenced so that they could get him out of there.  They had him out of there within a few days after he was sentenced.

I worked there, and because he was destroying property, they wanted him out of there. That’s what the problem is.  But it doesn’t matter; they have no right to abuse him because he’s destroying property.

He’s not on medication; how is he supposed to control anything when he’s not on medication?

“How long has he been in prison?”

This is his first time in prison; he’s been in there since the end of 2012.  They move him every few months or every year.  They’ve moved him so many times that after six times, I lost count.

“Have you been able to visit him at all?”

No. Nashville would be a struggle for me to get there, and I don’t have a car.  I’m in Middle Tennessee; he’s in West Tennessee, which is four or five hours from here.  I’ve talked to him a little bit on the phone before, and we send letters, but as I said, since that very last letter I got about his abuse, I’ve heard nothing.  Another family member has sent him letters, and I’ve sent him letters, but we’ve heard nothing, and that’s not like him.

“Is he normally able to write a letter himself?”

A lot of times he’ll get someone to help him with it.  Right now, when I talked to them, the only thing I found out was that he’s in Medical for “behavior.”  I’m wondering if they’re not giving him drugs that he does not want.

We did get a letter saying that they took all of the money.  He told us not to send any more and that he would get his money back one way or another.  When he said that, I knew from working at the jail where he was at that he had a habit of breaking things.

You know that they open incoming mail, right?

“Yes, I’m aware of that.”

They’re not supposed to open outgoing mail, but that letter we got about this incident was opened and part of it was ripped out.

We’re allowed to send him postage stamps.  I sent him four, and a relative sent him a whole book, so he should have the stamps to mail us letters, but I don’t think he’s getting any mail, any postage stamps, or anything.  They told me on the phone that he was.

The entire letter we received from Vickery reads as follows:

The problem of mentally-ill inmates has been a topic of concern of the American Psychological Association (APA) and reported by the Bradenton Herald, National Public Radio (NPR) and healthaffairs.org, among others.  Vickery said she believes that her son has a personality disorder, although the last diagnosis she said he received was that of “bipolar” disorder.

Vickery told The Post & Email that his troubled childhood included his enrollment at special-needs schools which she said could not handle him and placement at a special-needs foster home, where he was abused.

Cruel treatment of prisoners in other parts of Tennessee has been reported as having culminated in a prisoner’s suicide.  The Post & Email has documented a lack of medical care at various Tennessee state prisons as well as the corrupt grand jury system which utilizes judicially hand-picked grand jury foremen.

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