Sixth Former Tennessee Corrections Officer Pleads Guilty to Federal Offenses Arising out of a Cover Up of Staff Assault of an Inmate

Former Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) Corporal Tommy Morris, 29, pleaded guilty to conspiring to cover up the beating of an inmate and to encouraging other officers to provide false information to investigators, the Justice Department announced today.

“The State of Tennessee entrusted this defendant with the responsibility to act lawfully as a corrections officer by supervising those in his chain of command and by treating inmates humanely and in a manner that complies with the U.S. Constitution and other laws,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “Instead of acting lawfully, this defendant violated the public trust, stood by and did nothing as junior officers unjustly beat an inmate, lied repeatedly about the beating, and tried to persuade other corrections officers to lie about what happened. This defendant’s criminal misconduct violates both our law and common decency, and the U.S. Department of Justice will not stand for it. The Justice Department will continue to work hard to ensure that all Americans are held accountable for breaking the law, especially those who abuse their position of authority in the law to do so.”

“Correctional officers must abide by and adhere to the same laws they take an oath to uphold and enforce,” said U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant for the Western District of Tennessee. “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. As a result, he will now be held accountable, vividly illustrating that no one is above the law.”

“When a correctional officer violates the civil rights of an inmate whose safety he is charged with, it undermines the respect and reputation of all law enforcement officers,” said Douglas M. Korneski, Special Agent in Charge of the Memphis Field Office of the FBI. “This plea should be a reminder that the FBI takes the allegation of civil rights violations seriously, and will vigorously investigate these kinds of cases, and bring to justice any law enforcement officer who violates the constitution and the trust of the people.”

With his guilty plea, Morris admitted that, on Feb. 1, 2019, he and other correctional officers entered the cell of R.T., an inmate in the mental health unit at the Northwest County Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tennessee. Morris stood by as a junior officer instructed another officer to cover the surveillance camera in the cell. Morris then watched as three officers punched R.T. in retaliation for R.T. spitting earlier.  

After the officers left R.T.’s cell, Morris, who was the ranking officer, suggested that they should falsely claim that R.T. injured himself while he was on suicide watch. Morris and another officer then directed the others to adopt the false and misleading story. The officers agreed to cover up the unlawful use of force on inmate R.T.

Morris knew that the officers’ use of force should be reported to TDOC authorities, but he did not report the incident, fill out any paperwork, or instruct any of the other officers to take those steps. Instead, when a junior correctional officer asked Morris if he needed to fill out any paperwork, Morris falsely claimed that it would be handled and there was no need to do anything.  

With today’s guilty plea, Morris admitted that he violated 18 U.S.C. § 371 when he conspired to cover up the beating of R.T. and that he violated 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b) (3) when he knowingly encouraged correctional officers to provide investigators with false and misleading information. The maximum penalty for the conspiracy offense is five years imprisonment and 20 years imprisonment for the obstruction offense.

Previously, former TDOC Correctional Officers Nathaniel Griffin, Tanner Penwell, Carl Spurlin Jr., Cadie McAlister, and Jonathan York entered guilty pleas for criminal offenses arising out of the assault of inmate R.T. Morris is the sixth and final defendant to enter a guilty plea.

This case was investigated by the Memphis Division of the FBI with the support of the TDOC, and is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Rebekah J. Bailey of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Pritchard of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee.

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    The Office of Refugee Resettlement's (ORR) grant announcements soliciting care providers for unaccompanied children—those without lawful immigration status and without a parent or guardian in the U.S. available to provide care and physical custody for them—lack clarity about what state licensing information is required. Further, ORR does not systematically confirm the information submitted by applicants or document a review of their past performance on ORR grants, when applicable, according to GAO's analysis of ORR documents and interviews with ORR officials. The grant announcements do not specify how applicants without a state license should show license eligibility—a criterion for receiving an ORR grant—or specify what past licensing allegations and concerns they must report. In addition, the extent to which ORR staff verify applicants' licensing information is unclear. In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, ORR awarded grants to approximately 14 facilities that were unable to serve children for 12 or more months because they remained unlicensed. In addition, ORR did not provide any documentation that staff conducted a review of past performance for the nearly 70 percent of applicants that previously held ORR grants. Without addressing these issues, ORR risks awarding grants to organizations that cannot obtain a state license or that have a history of poor performance. State licensing agencies regularly monitor ORR-funded facilities, but according to GAO's survey of these agencies, their information sharing with ORR is limited (see figure). State licensing agencies and ORR staff both said that improved information sharing would benefit their monitoring of facilities. Without such improvements, ORR may lack information about ongoing issues at its facilities. Key Survey Responses on Information-Sharing with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) by the 23 State Agencies That Licensed ORR-Funded Facilities in Fall 2019 ORR requires grantees to take corrective action to address noncompliance it identifies through monitoring, but ORR has not met some of its monitoring goals or notified grantees of the need for corrective actions in a timely manner. For example, under ORR regulations, each facility is to be audited for compliance with standards to prevent and respond to sexual abuse and harassment of children by February 22, 2019, but by April 2020, only 67 of 133 facilities had been audited. In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, ORR also did not meet its policy goals to visit each facility at least every 2 years, or to submit a report to facilities on any corrective actions identified within 30 days of a visit. Without further action, ORR will continue to not meet its own monitoring goals, which are designed to ensure the safety and well-being of children in its care. ORR is responsible for the care and placement of unaccompanied children in its custody, which it provides through grants to state-licensed care provider facilities. ORR was appropriated $1.3 billion for this program in fiscal year 2020. GAO was asked to review ORR's grant making process and oversight of its grantees. This report examines (1) how ORR considers state licensing issues and past performance in its review of grant applications; (2) state licensing agencies' oversight of ORR grantees, and how ORR and states share information; and (3) how ORR addresses grantee noncompliance. GAO reviewed ORR grant announcements and applications for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. GAO conducted a survey of 29 state licensing agencies in states with ORR facilities, and reviewed ORR monitoring documentation and corrective action reports. GAO also reviewed ORR guidance and policies, as well as relevant federal laws and regulations, and interviewed ORR officials. GAO is making eight recommendations to ORR on improving clarity in its grant announcements, communication with state licensing agencies, and monitoring of its grantees. ORR agreed with all eight recommendations. For more information, contact Kathryn A. Larin at (202) 512-7215 or larink@gao.gov.
    [Read More…]
  • Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Brightbill Delivers Remarks at the 2020 Annual Pennsylvania Chamber Environmental Virtual Conference
    In Crime News
    I am happy to be back home in Pennsylvania — in a sense — and have the opportunity to speak with the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. Since this organization’s founding in 1916, this Chamber has advocated for job creation and greater prosperity for all Pennsylvanians. It represents almost 50 percent of Pennsylvania’s private workforce with a membership of 10,000 businesses ranging from sole proprietors to Fortune 100 companies.
    [Read More…]
  • Newport News Tax Preparer Pleads Guilty to Preparing False Return
    In Crime News
    A Newport News, Virginia, tax preparer pleaded guilty today to aiding and assisting the preparation of a false tax return, announced Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Justice Department’s Tax Division and U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger for the Eastern District of Virginia.
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  • Organ Donation and Transplantation: We’re All Needed
    In Human Health, Resources and Services
    As the Nation’s Doctor, [Read More…]
  • Remarks to the Community of Democracies 20th Anniversary Virtual Conference
    In Human Health, Resources and Services
    Stephen Biegun, Deputy [Read More…]
  • Briefing with Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry
    In Climate - Environment - Conservation
    John Kerry, Special [Read More…]
  • Secretary Pompeo’s Meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken And Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau Before Their Meeting
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
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    In Travel
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  • Secretary Pompeo to Receive the International Republican Institute’s Freedom Award
    In Crime Control and Security News
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