Tennessee Prison Guard Admits to Covering Camera During Assault

A former Tennessee Department of Corrections officer pleaded guilty to helping cover up the assault of a mentally ill inmate in February.

Carl Spurlin, Jr., 42, is the third Tennessee corrections officer to plead guilty for their involvement in the brutal beating, according to the Jackson Sun. Fellow former corrections officers Tanner Penwell, 22, and Nathaniel Griffin, 29, previously pleaded guilty to “using unlawful force on an inmate.”

Spurlin admitted to concealing the other correctional officers’ assault on the inmate at the Northwest County Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tennessee.

“Correctional officers must abide by and adhere to the same laws they take an oath to uphold and enforce. Instead of serving and protecting the public, this officer actively participated to conceal the use of physical force by other officers to violate the civil rights of an individual,” US Attorney D. Michael Dunavant said in a statement.

“As a result, he will now be held accountable, vividly illustrating that no one is above the law.”

On February 1, an estimated five correctional officers entered the cell of an inmate named R.T. The inmate had been identified as a suicide risk, and he was bleeding when officers entered his cell, the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee said in a statement. R.T. swung his bloody hand towards the officers, which caused blood to splatter near them.

Spurlin admitted an officer, identified as J.Y., looked at the surveillance camera in the cell and ordered him to “violate the camera.” The 42-year-old stated he did not immediately obey the command and first looked to a supervisor standing nearby.

When the officer did not contradict the command, Spurlin covered the camera with his hand and watched as three correctional officers struck R.T. in the head and body “like a piñata.” J.Y. punched the inmate between 20 and 30 times and told Penwell to “get him” or “get you some.” Penwell then hit the man in the head four to five times, the Jackson Sun reported.

Griffin admitted to punching R.T. several times as well, stating the inmate spit on his arm. Correctional officers continued to assault R.T. and another correctional officer brought wet paper towels to Spurlin, which he used to cover the camera. The assault continued as he covered the surveillance camera.

Both Griffin and Penwell admitted in their guilty pleas that they knew their actions were unlawful and they did not attempt to stop the brutal attack on R.T., according to the Jackson Sun. The former corrections officers said the inmate never fought back and only used his arms in an attempt to protect his face.

After the assault on R.T. ended, he was left in his cell bleeding profusely, federal prosecutors revealed. J.Y., Griffin, Penwell, and a corporal identified as T.M. agreed to lie and claim the inmate injured himself while on suicide watch.

Spurlin pleaded guilty to knowledge of a federal felony, failing to notify authorities of the felony, and taking an affirmative step to conceal the felony.

“When correctional officers abuse their authority and harm inmates, it not only violates our civil rights laws, it undermines the criminal justice system as a whole,” M.A. Myers, Special Agent in Charge of the Memphis Field Office of the FBI, said in a statement.

“This plea should send a clear message that the FBI takes these allegations seriously, and will vigorously investigate these kinds of cases, and those who violate the public’s trust will be held accountable.”

The incident was investigated by the Memphis Division of the FBI in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC), which operates the prison. The Northwest County Correctional Complex is listed as the TDOC’s “primary educational prison” because it offers educational opportunities for inmates.

Spurlin faces up to three years in prison and will be sentenced on January 15, 2020. Griffin and Penwell face up to 10 years in prison for their charges. They will be sentenced on November 13 and November 27, respectively.

The three corrections officers are not the only Tennessee prison guards recently caught mistreating inmates. In July 2017, a former CoreCivic corrections officer pepper sprayed an inmate without justification in the middle of the night. Video of the incident released in February shows Oluwatobi Ola taking inmate James Nelson out to the common area of the private jail.

The two appear to be talking for two minutes, with Nelson appearing to be agitated and gesturing towards Ola’s belt. Ola grabs his pepper spray and Nelson takes two steps back to distance himself. Ola then pepper sprays Nelson and continues to do so as Nelson cowers. Nelson then attacks the guard in retaliation.

Ola was later fired by CoreCivic and arrested in 2018. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, but had his conviction dismissed when he completed an eight-week anger management class, the Nashville Tennessean reported.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.