Motions heard in jail lawsuit

By Lesley Jenkins
star staff

GREENEVILLE -- Attorneys for the Davis v. Carter County lawsuit appeared before Magistrate Judge Dennis H. Inman on Monday morning for a hearing to certify class-action status of the lawsuit, to determine jurisdiction for the case, and to set a date for preliminary injunction.
   One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, John Eldridge, appeared in U.S. District Court with John Duffy, the attorney representing Carter County and Sheriff John Henson. A second attorney for the plaintiffs, Scott Pratt, did not attend the hearing.
   In reference to the preliminary injunction and the jurisdiction for the case, Inman and the attorneys debated the interpretation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act which states that, in order to request a prison release order, the order must be heard by a three-judge panel instead of a single district judge.
   "This is a matter for the district judge (Honorable Judge Ronnie Greer) from the get-go," Eldridge said.
   Eldridge also said that, if his client, Tony Berry, and Pratt's clients, Micheal T. Davis and Donna Wells, agreed to amend the injunction request and drop the request for prison release order, there would be no need for the three-judge panel.
   The attorneys set a conference date to be held before the previously scheduled June 1 date for an evidentiary hearing for injunctive relief to discuss the need for a hearing. If Pratt and Eldridge decide against the June 1 hearing, a contingent date for the evidentiary hearing is scheduled for July 15.
   Duffy said that Carter County officials have made significant steps in easing the overcrowded jail for a short term of three years. This added time gives county commissioners and the Carter County Sheriff's Department time to review a needs assessment study conducted by Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon and make a decision for the county's long term jail needs.
   Since the evidentiary hearing would need to focus on the jail's present conditions at the time of the hearing, if the hearing is held on June 1 before the county has portable facilities in place to add 92 beds to the jail's capacity, Duffy said statistics would change throughout the process unless the hearing is scheduled after the portable facilities are in place.
   "It's pointless. The conditions are going to be different by July. There will be 92 less prisoners and half of the population in the existing facility," he said.
   Carter County commissioners approved the purchase of a portable facility to be located in the north end of the existing parking lot and approved renovations to the current facility. The $1.8 million short term solution will add 92 beds and is planned to be in place by July.
   The June 1 date remains in place in the event that Eldridge and Pratt decide against amending the injunction request.
   The judge said the situation was "in a nebulous mode" and said a conference date will be set for the week before June 1 "to see where things are moving."
   "It encourages me that both of you (Eldridge and Duffy) are being so cooperative," Inman said. "It really seems like everyone is working toward common goals."
   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.
   Other individuals may join the jail lawsuit now that it has received class-action status.