United States Attorney Ritz Celebrates Funding Awarded for Legal Services and Improved Court Responses to Domestic and Sexual Violence
Memphis, TN – Tanner Penwell, 22, pleaded guilty to using unlawful force on an inmate while Penwell was serving as a correctional officer with the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
"This type of behavior and violation of an inmate’s civil rights will not be tolerated," said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. "The Department of Justice will continue to seek out justice on behalf of those who have had their civil rights violated."
"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 used physical force to violate the civil rights of an individual and will now be held accountable, vividly illustrating that no one is above the law," said U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant.
"The FBI will vigorously investigate and bring to justice any law enforcement officer who crosses the line and engages in activity that violates the civil rights of those whose safety they are charged with," said Bryan McCloskey, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Memphis Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "This plea should be a reminder that wearing a badge does not make one above the law."
With his guilty plea, Penwell admitted that, on February 1, 2019, he and several 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. Penwell and the other officers entered the cell because R.T. was a suicide risk. Inmate R.T. was already bleeding when the officers entered his cell, and R.T. flung blood toward the correctional officers.
Once inside, a correctional officer looked in the direction of the surveillance camera in the cell and said, "violate the camera." Another correctional officer then covered the camera with his hand.
The correctional officer who asked for the camera to be violated then repeatedly punched R.T. Penwell estimated that this officer hit R.T. more than 20 times. When the officer stopped hitting R.T., he looked back at Penwell and said, "get him." Penwell stepped up and punched R.T. multiple times in the head. After Penwell stopped punching R.T., a third correctional officer punched R.T.
Throughout the time he was being punched by the correctional officers, inmate R.T. sat on the bench in the cell and only used his arms to cover his face in an apparent attempt to protect his face from the correctional officers’ punches. At no point did R.T. attempt to fight back. Penwell knew that punching R.T. was unlawful, but he did not step in to stop it. A supervisor and several correctional officers were in a position to watch as the three correctional officers punched inmate R.T., but none of them attempted to stop the officers from hitting R.T. After R.T. was punched by the officers, Penwell observed that R.T. was bleeding much more than when they had first entered the cell.
Once outside of the cell, Penwell spoke with several correctional officers and a supervisor. The supervisor said he needed to see if the camera inside the cell was working. The supervisor and the first correctional officer who punched R.T. decided that all of the officers would falsely claim that R.T. injured himself while he was on suicide watch in the mental health unit.
The next morning, the first correctional officer who punched R.T. told Penwell that instead of falsely claiming that R.T. injured himself, as the supervisor had proposed the day before, they should both falsely blame the third correctional officer who punched R.T. for all of R.T.’s injuries. Over the next few days, the first officer who punched R.T. repeatedly told Penwell to stick to this new cover story.
With today’s guilty plea, Penwell admitted that he violated 18 U.S.C. § 242 when he repeatedly punched and injured inmate R.T. without legal justification. The maximum penalty for this civil rights offense is 10 years imprisonment.
In a related case, former Correctional Officer Nathaniel Griffin entered a guilty plea in federal court on August 15, 2019. Sentencing is scheduled for November 27, 2019, before U.S. District Court Judge J. Daniel Breen.
This case was investigated by the Memphis Division of the FBI with the support of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, and is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Rebekah J. Bailey of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Assistant United States Attorney David Pritchard of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee.