Families question handling of medical emergencies inside Tennessee prison
HARTSVILLE, Tenn. — Since last summer, WSMV in Nashville has been looking closely at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, the state’s newest and biggest prison.
It is run by CoreCivic, the Nashville-based company formerly known as CCA.
The state is paying CoreCivic more than $275 million over the next four years to run the prison, but there have been problems from the start.
More people live on the prison’s 50 acres than the entire town of Hartsville, TN. Some 2,500 men are locked up together in the shadow of an abandoned nuclear tower in the privately run state prison.
One look at the sheriff’s call log shows 140 Macon Way is a busy address for ambulances.
Just a month after being moved into the brand new minimum security Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, an inmate named Joe Bennett would speak his last words.
Bennett was jumped by as many as six gang members and beaten after sneaking into an office to use the phone.
“He was in a coma for a month. He has since woken up but he has no verbal skills, no motor skills. He can open his eyes, and that’s the extent of what he’s able to do,” said his fiancee, Angie.
When Bennett’s fiancee received the news, she was told to hurry because he might not survive. But the call was hardly urgent.
“The nurse in his room informed me he had actually been in the hospital since Aug. 3, so they didn’t actually call me until three days after the incident to let me know that anything had happened,” Angie said.
The story was much the same for Diana, but not the outcome.
“I received a phone call at 9:10 a.m., that time will always stay in my head, on Monday,” she said.
Her brother had died.
“She said he died of a massive heart attack, that they had a hard time finding me and that he had passed away Saturday. This was Monday,” Diana said. “Of course, I was in shock. … Trying to absorb this, and I wasn’t absorbing it.”
Why would it take several days to notify a local woman who had just talked with her brother the day before that he had suddenly died?
Former chaplain Jacque Steubbel said it’s part of a deliberate yet unwritten CoreCivic policy.
“What I was told often was, remember, no inmate dies inside a CCA facility. They may die on the way to the hospital, but they do not die in a CCA facility,” Steubbel said.
The I-Team has been digging into deaths and medical emergencies tied to Trousdale Turner Correctional Center.
In the description of Diana’s brother’s emergency, the prison told her it was a massive heart attack and that he was still alive when the ambulance came.
“We have an inmate who fell out with a seizure and stopped breathing. We need medical assistance,” said a recording of an emergency call.
“According to the staff, he stopped breathing. And I would think if you stopped breathing, you’re dead,” Steubbel said.
Two months earlier, inmates told the I-Team another inmate was badly beaten. In the emergency call, the injuries resulting from assault are described as a seizure.
“We need an ambulance. … The inmate, he’s having a real bad seizure,” said a recording of an emergency call.
When the prison called a second time, the description had changed.
“It makes me wonder how many more has happened there that they say did not happen there, that happened in the hospital or natural causes,” Diana said.
“I mean, every insider knows, every prisoner knows nobody ever dies in a CoreCivic prison,” said Jeannie Alexander, an activist with No Exceptions
But in an emergency call, Chief of Security Lola Cox may have slipped up when reporting an inmate death on Thanksgiving Day.
“Hey, this is Chief Cox at Trousdale. I was trying to get in touch. We need a coroner, we’ve got an inmate that’s passed,” Cox said on the call.
“Hey, this is Chief Cox at Trousdale again. And so now I’ve been told we need an ambulance to come and take the inmate to the hospital and have the coroner meet us at the hospital,” Cox said when she called back.
Alexander said she has never seen facility as problematic as Trousdale.
“No, I’ve never, in either the state of Georgia or Tennessee, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never read letters like this. I’ve never received phone calls from family members or staff like this. It’s the volume of what we’re receiving in the consistency. I’ve never seen anything like Trousdale,” she said.
That brings us back to Diana.
“It’s obvious by the lie from the beginning to waiting two days to contact me they were in a scramble, panic mode. It’s obvious,” she said.
Diana showed the I-Team her phone records to verify that no one from the prison tried to call her over the weekend, as they claimed.
When she tried to get in touch with the chaplain again, the chaplain had been fired.
“I greatly encouraged the family to have an autopsy because it seemed very suspicious to me. I mean a man in his 50s with no previous medical problems suddenly keeling over,” Steubbel said.
The autopsy showed it wasn’t a seizure or a heart attack that killed Diana’s brother.
“It was an overdose, an overdose of meth in this facility. Words cannot express the shock we have on so many levels that this could even possible be anything that would be considered in a state correctional center. Unbelievable. How he got it, where he got it. Was it manufactured in there? Who supplied him with this? It’s beyond anybody’s comprehension how this could happen,” Diana said.
“I couldn’t even get into the place to see him. Never seen him. You can get drugs in there obviously. You can pass them out,” she added.
“So many questions, so many levels. No family member that has a family member in that facility or any state-run facility should ever have to worry about their loved one dying of an overdose of drugs,” Diana said. “And no family should have to wait two days or after that a loved one has passed, when they have all that information at their fingerprints right there, and be misled and told the cause of death was something totally different.
“They’re hiding something. They’re trying to contain this. Guess what, it’s out, it’s out. That autopsy’s a public record,” Diana said.
The inmate from the second 911 call who was in full cardiac arrest hadn’t been beaten after all. He sent the I-Team a letter saying he nearly died that day from an overdose of heroin he bought and took inside the prison.
Steubbel no longer works at Trousdale or for CoreCivic. The company said she was fired “for cause” after what they referred to as an investigation that “substantiated misconduct.”
The company claimed she was “providing misleading information to investigators” and now has a motive to “impugn our company.”
Prior to our interview, Steubbel told the I-Team she was terminated by CoreCivic based on what she claimed were false allegations from an incident at her previous post in Texas. She provided documentation of her claims.
She also shared an unemployment determination that awarded her compensation, charged to CoreCivic, with a finding that her employer fired her for a “reason that was not misconduct connected with the work.”
The I-Team has tried many times to get specific answers to questions and concerns we have heard about the prison.
Late last week, CoreCivic responded to some of our long-pending questions, saying in part, “Medical privacy considerations precluded them from providing details on deaths or injuries.” They also generically stated that their staff acted appropriately in all situations.
So far, no one from CoreCivic or the state will grant the I-Team an interview.
On Wednesday, the I-Team looks into the alleged gang problem in Trousdale Turner Correctional Center and the interesting way some inmates say they’re combating gang violence.