COCKE COUNTY—A federal class action civil rights lawsuit has been filed against Cocke County and it’s Sheriff’s Office due to unsafe jail conditions.

The lawsuit names Sheriff Armando Fontes, the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office, Jail Administrator Josh Hartsell, CCSO Corrections Officers Stephen Revill, Officer Katrina Caldwell and Officer Jessica Huff, saying these individuals’ violated Manning’s rights under the United States Constitution and Tennessee common and statutory law.

The Baker Law Firm filed the lawsuit on Monday, January 11 on behalf of Nathaniel Dexter Manning.

The case centers on what Manning and his lawyer say is “the county’s re-occurring failures to protect the safety and security of inmates incarcerated at the Cocke County Jail.”

The lawsuit is based upon public statements made by Sheriff Fontes and other county officials, the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) inspections and reports, inmate statements, and upon information and belief that violence among inmates at the jail has increased at a substantial rate.

Documents provided by the law firm state that “thousands of individuals incarcerated at the jail have been subjected to unsafe conditions, subjected to inmate-on-inmate violence, and suffered serious injuries.”

The lawsuit provides state data showing Cocke County’s Jail is annually the “second most crowded jail in Tennessee.”

When Manning was booked into the jail, the facility had been decertified by TCI for two years based on, “failed inspections and warnings about lax employee training, staffing shortages, inadequate medical care and safety violations.”

The lawsuit claims deficiencies related to “gross overcrowding” and “under-understaffing” posed a “serious risk to safety”, and created a “serious liability for the county.”

When the plaintiff was booked, the jail had exceeded its 120 person maximum capacity for no fewer that eight consecutive years, largely hovering between 200% and 310% beyond capacity, according to the suit.

The law firm claims Sheriff Fontes and other County officials “admit that these conditions – particularly the chronic overcrowding since 2011 – are responsible for the Jail’s increasing number of inmate-on-inmate assaults.

“For certain, years of failed inspections and increasingly frequent reports of inmate-on-inmate assaults leave no doubt that Mayor Crystal Ottinger, Sheriff Fontes, Administrator Hartsell, and other County officials have long-known of this substantial risk to inmate safety, particularly now that inmate-on-inmate assaults are almost a daily occurrence. Yet, they have taken no meaningful action to address the unsafe conditions.”

The incident in question occurred on January 10, 2020. Manning claimed that one of his cell mates walked toward him and began “savagely beating” him about the head, face and upper body, landing one blow after another to the left side of his face.

Manning said another inmate grabbed him from behind and held him as his assailant beat him.

Documents say that Manning was able to push an alarm to alert Corrections Officers, but at that moment, the only on duty officers were across the street in another facility, about 400 feet away.

Officers found Manning “bleeding from multiple lacerations to his head, his eye was swollen shut on the left side and he was stumbling around.”

The lawsuit claims that five hours after being beaten, a nurse decided Manning’s injuries were serious enough to send him to Newport Medical Center, where he was released by the CCSO on his own recognizance.

An initial medical evaluation showed that Manning had suffered multiple facial fractures. Doctors at Newport Medical decided Manning needed a higher level of care and arranged for him to be transferred to the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

Doctors diagnosed Manning with a “left zygomaticomaxillary complex fracture with an orbital floor blowout fracture.” Surgery was performed to repair and close the fractures leaving Manning with medical bills totaling $58,824.

The law firm says Manning “should have been safe in the custody of the county, Sheriff Armando Fontes and Administrator Hartsell. Having accepted the plaintiff into their facility as an inmate, however, the county, Sheriff Armando Fontes and Administrator Hartsell, and jail employees abandoned him to be viciously beaten by violent inmates.”

The action demands compensatory damages in the sum of $15,000,000 and punitive damages in the sum of another $15,000,000, as well as recover costs for the suit, including reasonable attorneys’ fees and discretionary costs.

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