Judge to hear motions in jail lawsuit

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   The federal lawsuit filed against Carter County and Sheriff John Henson citing "inhumane" living conditions at the Carter County Jail is scheduled to go before a judge on Monday who will decide whether to certify the lawsuit with class action status and may also make a ruling on a motion filed by the plaintiffs to close the jail immediately.
   In a motion filed by attorneys Scott Pratt, of Johnson City, and John Eldridge, of Knoxville, in U.S. District Court in Greeneville on April 14, the attorneys are asking to amend their original request for a preliminary injunction against the jail in the lawsuit. The original injunction, if granted, would have allowed a cap to be placed on how many inmates could be held at one time at the Carter County facility and would require the county to house inmates above that number in other area facilities.
   According to Pratt, since the time that the lawsuit was originally filed, both he and Eldridge have had an opportunity to inspect the jail facility and to have a detention facility specialist inspect the jail as well. The findings of those inspections are what prompted the attorneys to amend their original injunction request.
   "Plaintiffs allege that conditions in the Carter County Jail have deteriorated to the point that the jail has become a health hazard, a fire hazard, and a security hazard, to the extent that these hazards present a real and immediate danger to both the inmates who reside there and the sheriff's department employees who work there," states the amended motion for injunction. "Plaintiffs allege that the conditions of overcrowding in the jail have become so severe that the inmates occasionally flood the jail to protest. The flooding causes human urine and feces to wash through the ceiling of the courthouse offices which are directly below the jail. Flooding causes a human health hazard that is a real and immediate danger to the workers in the courthouse below and the visitors who conduct business there each day."
   Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case are now seeking the immediate closure of the jail as opposed to a motion for preliminary injunction as they were when the lawsuits were filed in November of 2003. No monetary amount has been set in relation to what the plaintiffs are seeking for the damages they incurred.
   Court records state that "the hearing on April 26, 2004, will be devoted solely to the issue of whether this Court has jurisdiction over the requested relief."
   Plaintiffs in the case had sought to call several former inmates from the Carter County Jail to the stand to testify in the hearing and had asked the court to issue summonses for those individuals on April 14, but those requests were denied on April 19.
   The lawsuit alleges that conditions at the jail are, and have been for some time, inhumane for inmates confined at the detention facility. "The plaintiffs contend that the totality of conditions at the Carter County Jail fall beneath the minimum standards for human decency, inflict cruel and needless punishment on all of the inmates, and create an environment that takes a tremendous toll on the inmates' physical and emotional well-being," the complaint states.
   Violations of inmates' first, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth and fourteenth amendment rights also occurred, according to the lawsuit.
   The complaint claims that the defendants in the case, Carter County and Henson, are responsible for the conditions at the jail "by their policies, procedures and customs" and have failed to improve them.
   "Despite direct and long term knowledge of the inhuman and inhumane conditions at the Carter County Detention Center, and the availability of public funds and grants for maintenance and improvements, the defendants have deliberately failed to exercise their power to improve conditions at the jail," the lawsuit states.
   The hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled to begin Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. at the U.S. District Courthouse in Greeneville.