Six corrections officers walked into a seclusion cell at a Tennessee prison in 2019, covered up the surveillance camera, and took turns beating a man who had been placed there on suicide watch, according to federal prosecutors.
One watched, another stood in the doorway, and three more are accused of delivered the blows. A sixth officer reportedly held his hand over the camera lens.
The man never fought back, officials said.
Now at least one of the officers is headed to prison. Jonathan York, 33, was sentenced to two years with an additional two years of supervised release after he pleaded guilty last year to using unlawful force and conspiring to cover up the incident, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee said Monday in a news release.
“This sentencing should be a reminder that wearing a badge does not make one above the law,” said Matthew Foster, acting special agent in charge of the FBI Memphis Field Office. “Law enforcement officers or any other government employees who abuse their authority and use unlawful force will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted.”
A defense attorney representing York did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment Tuesday.
On Feb. 1, 2019, York and five other corrections officers entered a cell in the mental health unit at the Northwest County Correctional Complex, prosecutors said. The prison is in Tiptonville, Tennessee, which has a population of less than 5,000 and is sandwiched between the Mississippi River and Reelfoot Lake in the northwestern corner of the state.
Inside the cell was a man identified by prosecutors only as R.T.
R.T. was on suicide watch in a room with a camera that continuously recorded, according to court documents. He was already bleeding when the officers arrived, prosecutors said, and “swung his bloody hand towards the officers nearest him, flinging blood in their direction.”
Officials said what happened next was in retaliation for a spitting incident earlier that day.
York told another officer, 42-year-old Carl Spurlin Jr., to cover up the camera, officials said. Spurlin complied, holding his hand over the lens while York reportedly punched R.T. in the neck, face, back and chest at least 30 times, causing “visible injury” and making him bleed, officials said. When he finished, prosecutors said York instructed a second officer — 22-year-old Tanner Penwell — to do the same.
“Get you some,” he reportedly said.
Penwell is accused of taking four or five swings at R.T. When the punches stopped, prosecutors said R.T. spit on another officer’s chest and arm. That officer, 29-year-old Nathaniel Griffin, then punched him multiple times and left the cell, officials said.
During the assault, prosecutors said R.T. stayed on the bench and tried to protect his face. Spurlin would later tell investigators the corrections officers were hitting him “like a pinata.”
“At no point did R.T. attempt to fight back,” prosecutors said.
Who else was there
Two other officers were reportedly present during the assault: Cadie McAlister and Tommy Morris.
Prosecutors said McAlister, then 21, stood in the doorway, heard York instruct someone to cover up the camera and brought paper towels when an officer asked for them. Griffin, the third deputy accused of striking R.T., reportedly wet the paper towels and gave them to Spurlin to help cover up the camera lens.
McAlister is also accused of failing to update the logbook for the mental health unit that day to include what happened to R.T.
Morris, now 29, was the ranking officer in the room that day. After the assault, prosecutors said he concocted the story the officers were instructed to tell if anyone asked — that R.T. had injured himself while on suicide watch.
Indictments against the six officers were handed down within a few months of the attack, court documents show.
Griffin, the third officer accused of punching R.T. after York and Penwell, was the first to plead guilty to using unlawful force on an inmate in August 2019. Penwell submitted his own guilty plea in September that year, followed by Spurlin in October 2019 and McAlister in November 2019.
York pleaded guilty in June last year and Morris followed suit in November, according to the Justice Department.
Spurlin was given 10 months’ probation at his sentencing hearing in February, court documents show. The remaining officers are scheduled to be sentenced later this year.
At York’s sentencing hearing Friday, a federal judge requested the Bureau of Prisons consider his prior employment as a corrections officer when they determine where he will serve his sentence.
He also said York should be “housed as close to East TN as possible.”