The attorney for a man beaten in the Knox County jail says his client should never have been there in the first place, not because he was accused of committing a crime, but because he’s mentally ill. WBIR
(WBIR-KNOXVILLE) A former Knox County inmate who was at the center of a jail beating caught on videotape last November has filed $5 million federal lawsuit against the county, the sheriff’s office and the correction officers involved.
The lawsuit accuses officials of violating 52-year-old Louis Flack’s civil rights, using excessive force against him, inflicting emotional distress and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Authorities initially arrested Flack for burglary and aggravated assault late last year and held him at the jail facility on Maloneyville Road.
On Nov. 28, 2014, jail employees sought to move Flack to a different cell.
A 9-minute video obtained by WBIR 10News shows five jail employees rushed into the cell as Flack appeared to take a swing at one of them. The employees tackled him to the ground, and at least four started throwing punches. An officer videotaping the fight with a handheld camera blocked much of the struggle.
In January, Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones fired jail employee Nick Breeden and suspended Cpl. David Sparkes and Chris Fustos without pay after reviewing security camera footage.
LAWSUIT: Copy of the 53-page complaint filed Monday
Sparkes was the supervisor on duty at the time of the Nov. 28 incident.
An internal review found the men used “techniques that violated policy” and use-of-force options taught by the department.
Jail employee Jesse Rudd also resigned.
On Monday, Flack’s attorney, Knoxville-based Lance Baker, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court, a 53-page complaint that says the jail officials don’t necessarily treat inmates differently, but rather they treat them all the same.
“One of our overarching arguments is the fact that this is not an equal protection claim,” Baker told WBIR 10News Monday night. “We’re not saying that they’re treating Louis Flack or any other mentally ill inmate different. What we’re saying is that they’re treating them the same. They’re not taking into account their mental illness.”
He said the jail and the workers there are “ill-equipped, ill-prepared and not trained to handle” the mentally ill.
“The point is they’re treating inmates the same as someone who is not mentally ill,” Baker said.
The complaint states that officers “knew that [Flack] suffered from a severe mental illness …including paranoia … causing him to often be angry, combative or belligerent.”
“Correctional officers have a difficult job in the best of circumstances,” the lawsuit states. “The difficulties and frustrations of work as a correctional officer are compounded when prisoners have (a) mental illness. Few correctional officers have the training in and understanding of the nature of mental illness that would help them cope better with the challenges posed by offenders with severe illnesses. They come to their jobs with the fears and prejudices of the general population toward the mentally ill. The correctional culture of order, obedience, and discipline in which they were trained leaves them further ill-prepared for handling prisoners whose behavior is either chronically or episodically ruled by their mental illness.”
Baker, in the lawsuit, notes that Flack “has had a long-term battle with mental illness, and has been treated as both an inpatient and outpatient” at a number of local hospitals.
Baker also said he hopes the lawsuit sheds light on the county’s need for a much-debated safety center – a facility designed to house and treat the mentally ill who are arrested for nonviolent crimes.
“There’s been plenty of county leaders dating back well over a decade saying and writing to commissioners and both the county and city mayors telling them that we have to do something about putting people who are mentally ill into this detention facility,” he said.
Baker added: “This isn’t new. It’s been around for a while, and it’s time people start listening.”
County leaders have long talked about building a facility to combat jail overcrowding at the Maloneyville Road detention center, and help those with mental health issues get the care they need.
The center would treat offenders who voluntarily stay for up to three days, and could serve about 4,000 people a year.
Officials have said the facility would cost about $2 million to build and then another $1.7 million annually to operate.
“The safety center that everyone is talking about would be much more conducive to someone like Louis and thousands each year,” Baker said. “It will save money and put them in a place where the people who work there are better equipped to handle the mentally ill.”
Baker said since his release from jail, Flack has been “doing fine.”
“Every day is a new day for him,” he added.
Baker also said that Flack currently sees a “trained social worker” from Helen Ross McNabb “who administers his medicine and supervises him.”
Knox County Sheriff’s Office officials declined to comment, which is protocol for the department when a lawsuit it filed.