Class action suit filed against Carter County and Sheriff John Henson

By Lesley Jenkins
Star staff
ljenkins@starhq.com

   A class action lawsuit has been filed against Carter County and Sheriff John Henson in the United States District Court at Greeneville.
   Michael Todd Davis and Donna Wells, named as plaintiffs in the suit, are acting as individuals and on behalf of other inmates at the Carter County Detention Center, according to the suit filed by Johnson City attorney Scott Pratt.
   According to the complaint, the plaintiffs allege that conditions in the detention center "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 defendants, Carter County and Henson, are accused of being responsible for the "unconstitutional conditions under which persons are confined in the Carter County Detention Center," the complaint reads.
   The complaint alleges that the detention center is, "inadequately staffed, inadequately maintained, improperly operated, and unsuited for the housing, care, and personal security of the inmates who reside there. The jail is dangerously overcrowded; there are leaks in the ceilings and roof; ventilation and lighting are inadequate; showers and toilets do not operate properly and expose inmates to raw sewage; there is mold an inch thick on some of the walls; medical care is grossly inadequate; inmates are improperly classified; food service is inadequate and unsanitary, and there are no facilities or opportunities for recreation or religious ceremonies."
   Some of the items listed in the suit include overcrowding at the jail. The jail's capacity is 91, and over the past three years, the inmate population has been over this capacity and even as high as 240 inmates, according to the suit.
   According to documents provided to the Star on Monday, during Davis's eight month detainment at the jail from Feb. 2002 to Aug. 2003, the only places available to "sleep were either across a toilet, in a shower, or in a space in Cell Five that was directly beneath a leak in the roof." Davis alleges that he never spent one night on a bunk.
   Davis also alleges that he was assaulted by other inmates on several occasions and witnessed other assaults. He was afraid to report the attacks for fear they would worsen. Davis also reported witnessing illegal drug use, such as marijuana, cocaine, and morphine, on an almost daily basis.
   Wells contends that on Sept. 26, 2003, while she slept on the floor of the center's chapel, she was bitten by a brown recluse spider. She informed a guard of the bite, which had became swollen, painful and red. Wells claims a doctor did not see her until Oct. 1, despite repeated requests, when emergency medical technicians were called to transport Wells to Sycamore Shoals Hospital for treatment, according to the lawsuit. She was told to return the following day but was never returned for follow-up treatment.
   The allegations state that "Necrosis has caused a large hole in Ms. Wells' leg, and she will be left with a permanent scar. The lack of treatment exhibits a deliberate indifference to Ms. Wells' serious medical needs on the part of the Carter County Detention Center staff, and entitles her to damages for her pain, injury, and permanent scarring."
   The suit requests "that the court issue a declaratory judgment ... stating that the defendants' policies, practices, acts and omissions described in the complaint violate the plaintiffs' rights guaranteed to them by the First, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."
   Also requested is "that the plaintiffs who have suffered physical injuries also be awarded punitive damages."
   "This is a big lawsuit. It has been a long time coming. These conditions are way beyond what human beings should be doing to other human beings," said Pratt.
   Pratt has requested a jury decide the amount of punitive damages.
   County Mayor Dale Fair declined to comment because a copy of the suit had not been provided to him yet. Sheriff John Henson was not available for comment.