Former inmate sues Cocke County over jail conditions, says he was left for 12 hours after being beaten

Overcrowding and understaffing has long been a concern at the Cocke County Jail.
Cocke County Inmate Sues for $1.5 million
Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 11:17 AM EDT
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NEWPORT, Tenn. (WVLT) - After years of concerns centered on the conditions in the Cocke County Jail, the county and several officials are facing a lawsuit from a former inmate.

The suit, filed on behalf of Steven J. Laws, alleges that Laws, who was jailed in March of 2022 on misdemeanor drug charges, was beaten by fellow inmates on his first day then left unchecked in his cell for 12 hours before being denied medical service by jail officials.

Laws’ main complaints about his experience center on an ongoing issue at the jail: not enough corrections officers in charge of too many inmates.

The Cocke County Jail has faced problems for years, losing its Tennessee Correctional Institute certification in 2017 due to poor living conditions for inmates, overcrowding and understaffing. During a 2017 visit, then-Chief Deputy Derrick Woods showed WVLT News rotting ceilings, holes in the floor and leaks.

“We’re out of room, we’re out of creativity, the only thing we’re not out of is having enough personnel to do what we do here everyday,” Woods said at the time.

Previous Coverage: Cocke County leaders address courthouse security and jail issues

Laws’ suit states that several other inmates beat him for up to half an hour. During that time, Laws said he was moved out of his cell and into the jail’s showers, then moved back into his cell. During that time, no officers noticed anything, the suit says.

“He was beaten and stomped in his cell, dragged into the showers and beaten and kicked again, and dragged back to his cell and beaten and stomped yet again,” the suit alleges. “He sustained serious head and facial trauma, including a concussion, multiple jaw fractures that required emergency surgery, lacerations, bruises, swelling, and injuries to his neck, back, and hip.”

After being beaten, Laws was allegedly left in his cell for hours. No correctional officers checked in on him, the suit states, even though jail policy required frequent visits.

“All the while, for approximately twelve hours, although policy mandated regular security checks, no Corrections Officer was to be found, and [Laws] stayed in his cell, unable to open his mouth or talk, bleeding from his head injuries, fearing for his life, and wondering why no one was helping him,” the suit says.

WVLT News visited Cocke County again in 2020, speaking to then-Sheriff Armando Fontes, who said overcrowding at the jail was leading to an increase in fights and violent behavior. At the time, the county had 198 inmates but only 142 beds.

“Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine being locked in a cell 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with 24 other people,” Fontes said. He added that the jail was at risk of lawsuits.

“A jail is a community’s largest liability when it comes to lawsuits,” Fontes said. “This is not a new issue- it’s been here a long time.”

Previous Coverage: Overcrowding breeds ugly fights inside Cocke County jail

After being left alone for 12 hours, the suit says, Laws was discovered by two correctional officers. Laws said he tried to get their help, but the officers did not provide it.

“When [Laws] tried to tell the officers that he thought his jaw was broken, they got aggravated and told him nothing was wrong with him,” the suit states.

Eventually, the two took Laws into another room and “cleaned up his wounds,” the suit says, while on the phone with the jail’s nurse. That nurse said “she would ‘check him out in the morning’ and recommended ‘an ice pack for his jaw and two Tylenols for the pain,’” according to the suit.

From there, Laws said he was moved to a medical cell where his condition got worse. Laws’ said he was doing so poorly that “other inmates in the medical cell... pleaded for help on his behalf.”

The performance of what jail personnel the county has been able to hire has also been an ongoing problem. Fontes told WVLT in 2020 that staff at the jail were not equipped to handle stressful situations.

“You don’t get good quality people- you get a young person looking for a job who lacks the life experiences to help them handle situations,” Fontes said. “They need to be the ones who are patient and calm and not react to a mouthy inmate or someone who’s being belligerent.”

That evening, according to Laws, he was bailed out of jail by his mother and taken to an emergency room, a dentist and the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

“[Laws] visited an ER and a dentist, who quickly saw that [Laws’] jaw was fractured and that he needed immediate medical attention. The dentist advised him to go to the University of Tennessee Medical Center,” the suit reads. At the hospital, Laws was diagnosed with fractures, facial trauma and impacted teeth, requiring emergency surgery.

“Dr. John Mizukawa performed surgery to repair and close the fractures and extract the teeth. [Laws’] medical bills totaled approximately $34,000,” the suit states.

Laws claims that while he was detained by Cocke County, the county, along with jail personnel, were responsible for his well-being. The suit states that those in charge of Laws did not perform their duties, resulting in Laws becoming injured. The suit also claims that Cocke County and Cocke County Sheriff’s Office officials had years to improve the jail’s conditions after losing certification in 2017, but failed to do so.

The suit names several people specifically: Cocke County, Fontes, several county and jail personnel, including Joshua R. Hartsell, Colton S. Rollins, Ashley Norton, Jerry Ball, Aaron Raines, Macy Stump, Ronald Rutkiewicz, Bryan Wills, Sherry Lawson, Samantha Cartwright and ten unidentified people. Additionally, the suit calls out Quality Correctional Healthcare, the company in charge of caring for Cocke County inmates.

Lance Baker, Laws’ legal representative provided a statement on the suit, saying:

“While we are still in the early stages of investigating this matter on behalf of Mr. Laws, like we do on all of our civil rights cases we file, we intend to prosecute this matter as aggressively as possible in hopes of finding justice for our client and his family.”

Laws is asking for at least $1.5 million, along with legal fees.

WVLT has reached out to Cocke County and several others mentioned in the lawsuit for statements.