Appeals court revives lawsuit over dirty TN inmate

AP News
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Posted: Apr 19, 2011 5:42 PM
Appeals court revives lawsuit over dirty TN inmate

A federal appeals court has revived a lawsuit that claims that an inmate at a privately run jail was denied mental health treatment and did not shower or leave his segregated cell for nine months.

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said last week that the lawsuit against Corrections Corporation of American should not have been dismissed by a lower court in 2009. The divided court opinion said there was a genuine question about how much physical injury inmate Frank Horton suffered while incarcerated.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen said company lawyers are assessing the opinion and still deciding what the next step will be.

Mary Braswell filed a federal lawsuit in 2008 against CCA accusing the private prison operator of treating her grandson inhumanely at the Nashville jail and violating his constitutional rights.

She claimed that Horton was mentally ill and deteriorated severely while he locked up for a non-violent probation violation from December 2005 to April 2008.

Court records say that Horton has a history of mental illness, and he was segregated from the general population in the jail because of behavioral problems. CCA guards had to use force at times to get Horton to take a shower and to keep him from fighting with other inmates, the records say.

Braswell, who acts as his legal guardian, said in the lawsuit that eventually her nephew was confined to a segregated cell from May 2007 till January 2008.

The lawsuit claims that CCA had a policy of using minimum force on inmates, and for that reason, prisoners who needed to be restrained or medicated against their will were often left untreated for long periods of time.

CCA employee Patrick Perry blew the whistle on his employer by reporting Horton's conditions to the Metro Nashville Health Department, records show. Perry, according to the documents, was fired the same day.

U.S. District Judge John Nixon dismissed the lawsuit, saying that the physical injury Horton suffered wasn't enough to allow it to continue.

But the federal appeals court said the physical injuries the grandmother alleges are similar to others found to violate a prisoner's right to be treated humanely.

"According to Perry's testimony, Horton was left in a disgustingly unsanitary cell for nine consecutive months, without a shower or opportunity to exercise. Perry testified that the cell was filthy, that there was mold growing in the toilet, that the cell floor was littered with food trays, and that the window in Horton's cell was covered, blocking all natural sunlight," the opinion said.

The federal appeals court also said there were still genuine questions about whether Horton was too mentally ill to understand the grievance process at the jail and whether CCA had a policy or custom in place that harmed him.

Judge Alice M. Batchelder, chief judge on the 6th Circuit, dissented, saying that Braswell should have sued individual CCA employees and not the company itself. The grandmother, the judge wrote, has not shown that CCA had an unconstitutional custom or policy that caused her grandson's mistreatment.

Horton was transferred to a special-needs facility within the government-run prison system before being released. He now lives with his grandmother in Nashville and is being medicated, said John Ray Clemmons, one of Braswell's attorneys.

"She is very pleased with the outcome and the ruling of the 6th Circuit," her attorney said.