BY KEN LITTLE
A lawsuit filed this week on behalf of a Greene County Detention Center inmate who suffered a severe beating one year ago by fellow inmates seeks $3 million in damages from the county.
The civil action, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Greeneville on behalf of Dustin Riedel "for the deprivation of (Riedel's) Eighth Amendment Rights against cruel and unusual punishment."
The lawsuit also alleges violation of his due process rights under the 14th Amendment, specifically "severe physical and mental injuries" suffered Sept. 13, 2011, while Riedel was a jail inmate.
Riedel, 30, of Afton, was listed Friday as an inmate at the jail. He was picked up July 26 on a violation-of-probation warrant stemming from a theft charge in May 2011.
The 10-page complaint was filed Wednesday by Greeneville lawyer Tony G. Lee Jr.
The lawsuit also makes allegations about conditions at the overcrowded jail. (Please see related article).
The suit claims the county failed to properly train correction officers and showed "a callous indifference" to adequately house and protect inmates.
County Mayor Alan Broyles, Greene County Sheriff Steve Burns and County Attorney Roger Woolsey are well aware of the overcrowding situation at the jail and the fact that the jail lost its state certification this week, with overcrowding a key issue.
But Sheriff Burns and County Attorney Woolsey said in brief interviews with The Greeneville Sun that the county would file a defense against the Riedel lawsuit.
Woolsey expressed strong skepticism about some of the allegations in the suit, and Sheriff Burns urged the public to reserve judgment about the charges made in the suit until the county is able to state its case.
The lawsuit states that on Sept. 13, 2011, Riedel was housed with eight other inmates in "A" pod in the Greene County Detention Center.
"A" pod has eight cells, each with four permanent bunks attached to the walls, and a toilet and sink in each cell.
On the day Riedel was attacked, "there were approximately 80 inmates being housed in "A" pod, with the prisoners distributed in the eight cells, with the pod initially designed to house 32 prisoners," the lawsuit states.
There were "three or four" corrections officers in a centrally located tower detailed to monitor between 80 and 90 male inmates in three pods, according to the suit.
One of the cells in "A" pod was for inmates in protective custody, including those who "were seen as trouble makers/predators against other inmates," the complaint states.
In the jail, "there were inmates who were known members of national and international criminal gangs, as wells as local inmates facing charges ranging from minor misdemeanors to the most serious felonies," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit claims that fights among inmates "were common between competing criminal gangs, between groups of local inmates and between individual inmates in each of the prisoner pods."
The complaint maintains that correction officers "seldom intercede in the fights between the inmates because they are so overwhelmingly outnumbered against the inmate population," and entering a pod puts them at "great risk" of harm.
As a result, "many prisoners conduct themselves with blatant disregard from consequences for their disruptive and often criminal activities," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit states that on Sept. 13, 2011, a dispute developed when an inmate in the closed "A" pod protective custody cell stole food from Riedel as he attempted to hand it through the bars to another inmate.
A third inmate instigated a conflict between Riedel and the inmate who had stolen the food, the complaint states.
Riedel returned to his cell and was talking with cellmates "when he sensed something was wrong behind him, as his back was to the cell bars and door."
When he turned around, Riedel saw "an entire mob was blocking the view of the guard tower by congregating in mass" outside his cell.
An opening in the crowd allowed the inmate who took the food and the one who instigated the conflict to enter Riedel's cell.
They rushed Riedel, "beating him and knocking him to the floor of the cell, between the toilet and the wall," the lawsuit states.
Riedel curled up into a defensive ball, trying to protect himself from kicks and punches being thrown.
Riedel had long hair, pulled into a ponytail, which one of the inmates attacking him used to pull his head up high enough so the man who stole the food could "repeatedly kick him in the head and face," the complaint states.
The kicks were directed to the left side of Riedel's face and head, as the other inmate held Riedel by the hair, the complaint states.
Another inmate in the cell broke up the one-sided fight after Riedel "was kicked in the face 10 or more times," the lawsuit states.
The left side of Riedel's face "was obviously caved in, with his eye protruding downward from the crushed socket," the complaint states.
Riedel got outside the cell and screamed and waved at correction officers to help him, but was ignored, the complaint claims.
Riedel "was beating on the door asking for medical aid" and showing himself to the deputies.
After "what seemed to be several minutes from the time (Riedel) stumbled from his cell and began yelling for help from the guards, the door to the pod was opened, and it was determined (Riedel) needed immediate medical help," the lawsuit states.
Riedel was taken to Laughlin Memorial Hospital and then to Johnson City Medical Center, "to be treated for severe head injuries," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit states that Riedel's face and forehead "were rebuilt with several metal plates, and underwent plastic surgery to enhance his appearance because of the extreme trauma the beating caused to his appearance."
He underwent followup surgery to address complications.
The lawsuit maintains that Greene County has paid "an additional $350,000 in medical expenses" for the injuries Riedel suffered in the Greene County Detention Center.
According to the suit, Riedel "continues to suffer headaches, blurred vision, neck pain, and memory loss from injuries caused by the beating suffered while under the care and protection of Greene County."
The lawsuit alleges that jail officials did not take "reasonable measures" to guarantee the safety of inmates.
"Greene County has been on notice for several years that because of prisoner overcrowding, the [jail staff] did not meet minimum standards to ensure inmates' human rights and human needs," the lawsuit states.
"The County Commissioners have a duty to provide sufficient funds for a habitable jail and for training of guards," the complaint states.
The suit says Greene County "exhibited deliberate indifference to its constitutional obligation to provide protection for the inmates when they continuously refuse to provide a constitutionally safe environment for the prisoners."
The $3 million sought in the lawsuit is also for "lost wages, future lost wages, present and future medical payments, and pain and suffering in the form of compensatory and punitive damages," the lawsuit states.
'AWARE OF INCIDENT'
County Mayor Alan Broyles said Friday he just received a copy of the lawsuit and had yet to review it.
"I was aware of the incident," he said.
Because the case is pending, Broyles said he would not have additional comment at this time.
He did address the county's aspirations for the Greene County Detention Center.
"There's always a desire to have high standards at the jail," Broyles said.
Sheriff Steve Burns said Friday he could not discuss the allegations in the complaint, but asked citizens to keep an open mind until the county is able to state its case.
"We certainly will defend the lawsuit. I just ask that no one draw conclusions because lawsuits present just one side of the story," Burns said.
County officials, including Burns, have acknowledged the overcrowding situation at the detention center.
"We're very proud of our jail staff. They do a very good job under difficult conditions," Burns said.
County Attorney Roger Woolsey said in a telephone interview Friday evening that he had seen the lawsuit on Thursday.
While acknowledging that overcrowding was an issue for which the county must try to find a solution, Woolsey expressed strong skepticism about some of the allegations in the lawsuit.
"Some of the allegations seem pretty incredible," he said.
"The lawsuit speaks of the county commissioners being indifferent to the jail overcrowding issue. We are like other counties in that we have been wrestling with this problem.
"It becomes to some extent a matter of how much do we raise taxes, and do we put the revenue toward education or the jail?
"It seems to me that a lot of [the allegations are] made up. Whenever you have prisoners, you will have fights. I hate that this gentleman was hurt. All I know about the circumstances of that was what was in the lawsuit."
Woolsey confirmed that he was aware that the Greene County Detention Center had been officially decertified earlier this week and added, "The overcrowding is an issue. The jail has been decertified.
"I don't know what the answer is other than to work with it and try to come up with some solution to the housing situation.
"We will be filing an answer within the required time. Hopefully, I will have time next week to sit down and talk with the sheriff in detail about the allegations in the lawsuit."