The jail from hell

If you ever go to Memphis, you better walk right. A chilling report on one of the worst places in America.

Published January 23, 2001 10:05PM (EST)

The day after Thanksgiving, a Memphis, Tenn., resident named Joseph Liberto got into a fight with his wife. According to her, he chased her through the house with a knife. She called the police, who arrived at the couple's upper-middle-class home and arrested Liberto. (Memphis Police Department policy is to arrest suspects at the scene of a domestic violence call when weapons are involved.) Liberto had calmed down by that time, and the police did not handcuff him. They let him fetch a jacket and his antidepressant medication, which he takes four times a day. It was merely a precaution, Liberto assumed: His attorney, a prominent city litigator, would have him out of the Shelby County Jail in a matter of hours.

Liberto, who is the father of three teenage girls and had never before been arrested, was dropped off at the jail's intake area. It was a cramped, filthy space crowded with hundreds of inmates waiting to be classified, its floor covered in feces, urine and food. Liberto found himself sandwiched between two men, one who said he'd been arrested for beating and raping a 14-year-old girl, the other for shooting someone. Twice, according to Liberto, he asked guards for his medication: They cursed at him and told him to sit down and shut up. After hours, guards showed him what he thought were his bonding papers. Instead they were documents that would officially admit him into a cell within the jail. "I hadn't been able to call my lawyer," he says. "I knew I was in a bad place. I was really scared at that point."

Liberto was placed in a cell by himself. Sitting on the steel bed without a mattress, he watched a rat scurrying in and out from beneath his bed, where a pile of feces lay. Suddenly, his cell door was unlocked. (Every hour, all the cells in the jail are opened for five minutes so that inmates can enter a day room for a break.) At this time, a group of four men entered Liberto's cell.

A devout Catholic, Liberto had earlier prayed with two inmates in the intake room. "When they came in, I said, 'Do you want to pray?'" Liberto recalls. "They said, 'I don't think we want to pray.'"

Interviewed at his home, decorated with bright Christmas knickknacks, Liberto chokes back sobs as he remembers the scene.

Two men stood by the cell door. They ordered Liberto to shut up or they would slit his throat. Pull your pants down, they said. One of the men pushed a spoon into Liberto's mouth. "They told me to suck on this spoon, lick it real good," he says, barely able to talk through his sobs. "They bent me over and rammed that spoon in my rectum so hard, ramming it and turning it and shoving it and they said, 'We're getting you ready.' And then they took their penises out and put them in my face and rubbed them on my mouth. I could feel one of them back there. They put a handkerchief or something in my mouth."

The guards announced it was time to lock down the pod again. As the men who had orally raped and sodomized him left his cell, Liberto says that a guard yelled at his assailants, "Did you show that white boy a good time?"

From admission to when he finally posted bond and left, Liberto's ordeal in the Shelby County Jail had lasted more than 26 hours.

Liberto is still suffering psychologically and physically. He's attending therapy sessions with a rape crisis counselor. Medical records show that his rectum was torn. He used a sock to absorb blood immediately after the assault, but says he's still bleeding almost two months later. His thumb and shoulder may need surgery from being bent back by his attackers.

"This is very hurtful," he says. "But I'm not alone; I'm not the only one this has happened to. And if I talk about it, maybe someone else won't go through it."

Liberto is doing more than talking about it. He is planning to file a lawsuit (the amount has not been disclosed) against Shelby County and the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, which operates the facility. The brass is investigating Liberto's charges, says sex crimes investigator Sgt. Gloria White, who confirmed that officers have witnesses they plan to interview. Liberto's attorney Kathleen Caldwell will not file suit until the investigation is complete.

What Liberto didn't know, when he was admitted to Shelby County Jail, was that he was entering a hellhole -- a penal facility so plagued by severe gang violence, unsanitary conditions, lax medical service, overcrowding and inadequate supervision that two federal judges have declared it unconstitutional. The jail, the largest in Tennessee, is the focus of more than a dozen ongoing local lawsuits and an active U.S. Department of Justice investigation. Four men have died while being held in the Shelby County Jail; the families of three of those men have filed a $15 million wrongful death suit against the man who runs the jail, Sheriff A.C. Gilless, and other authorities. Just last week, on Jan. 17, Gilless and other penal authorities were also slapped with a $22 million lawsuit by 16 Shelby County Jail guards, who claim they were severely traumatized after Gilless and others authorized a phony takeover of the jail's control room last June.

Liberto is just one of hundreds of inmates who have been assaulted at the Shelby County Jail. Former inmate Darius Little was 19 years old when he was gang-raped; he sued and won a civil rights suit against the sheriff's department in 1996. His case led to a federal court order to improve the facility's conditions and reduce inmate violence. But three months of federal court testimony late last year revealed that far from improving, the jail is more violent and out of control than ever. On Dec. 22, U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla found the county in contempt of the 1996 order, threatening to jail Gilless if he didn't improve the facility.

"I can't fix the jail," McCalla warned the sheriff. "But I can make you want to fix it."

As with Liberto, the nightmare for many of those who are admitted to Shelby County Jail begins as soon as they walk in the door. A jail is supposed to be a temporary holding place for people when they are arrested. Unlike prison inmates, people in jail have not only not yet been found guilty, they haven't been charged. Some of them could quite possibly later be found innocent. Once inmates are processed and taken to court to be officially charged, the justice system allows them to either post bail and be released, or stay at the jail until their trial date. New prisoners are supposed to be classified as soon as possible and allowed to make a phone call within a reasonable period of time; violent and nonviolent inmates should be segregated.

At Shelby, most of the prisoners are impoverished, many with drug problems; only a few of those admitted make bail. The rest are forced into a broken system that is supposed to hold only 1,200 inmates, but actually holds 3,800. Shelby has only one computer equipped with classifying software, so many suspects have to wait more than a day to make a phone call. Some, like Liberto, spend hours without a clue as to what's going to happen to them. Violent and nonviolent inmates are not segregated, so fights often break out in intake. Liberto's solo cell assignment was unusual. Most inmates are housed two, sometimes three to a cell the size of a walk-in closet, despite a court order requiring that the jail place inmates in individual cells to keep predatory inmates away from weaker ones.

And far from protecting inmates from jailhouse violence, the poorly trained, badly paid and demoralized guards -- who are themselves at great risk of physical harm -- practice it themselves, according to lawsuits. Last month, two inmates arrested for DUI filed separate suits. One alleges guards broke his jaw for not answering a question correctly. The other accuses the guards of providing poor medical care after other inmates, wanting his diamond ring, broke his ankle and his fingers. (After being caught stealing from inmates, guards are now no longer allowed to confiscate their charges' valuables.)

Perhaps most frightening of all, Shelby County Jail is so plagued by violent, out-of-control gangs that it has been likened by corrections experts to New York's infamous Riker's Island, a prison that in the mid-1990s reported 1,100 gang-related stabbings and assaults in one month. According to Judge McCalla's recent ruling finding the county in contempt, the jail holds more than 250 members of Memphis' most lethal gangs, the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords, who outnumber the guards and run the jail with more authority than they do.

The gangs maintain systematic control over non-affiliated inmates through what's become known as "Thunderdoming." The style of combat is modeled after the pro-wrestling shows the inmates watch on television: Typically, a non-affiliated inmate is jumped from behind by a group of other inmates, hog-tied with a bed sheet and beaten with heavy rubber shower shoes and filled water bottles.

Larry Graham paid a price for refusing to Thunderdome. In November, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound inmate told Judge McCalla that he was savagely beaten, hog-tied and strangled with a rope. Showing the court a thick white scar encircling his neck, Graham said that while he floated in and out of consciousness, his attackers stripped him and took him to the showers. He woke up naked hours later, hog-tied on his cell bunk. He was transported to Memphis' Regional Medical Center where doctors fixed his broken bones as he struggled to open his swollen, bruised eyes.

Though he doesn't know why he was targeted other than refusing to participate in Thunderdome, Graham and other inmates say there's no escaping the gang's torments.

"You just don't buck them. There ain't nothing you can do, and ain't nobody going to help you," he said.

According to the National Gang Assessment project, 51 American prisons and 32 jails are home to nationally connected gangs. The Black Disciples, predecessors of the Gangster Disciples, were at top of the most feared list, dwarfing the violence of other organizations like the Aryan Brotherhood and the Crips.

Modern correctional facilities use segregation, punishment, and gang-tracking technology to try to control their most violent charges. Riker's Island has reported a 64 percent decrease in gang-related altercations after beefing up its gang intelligence unit, a team of officers trained to recognize gang insignia, clothing, behavior, and language. But at Shelby County, the Direct Response Team, a group of guards who specialize in subduing violent inmates, was cut from 75 to 18 jailers over the past two years -- a reduction based on lack of funds.

(Shelby County Jail Chief Marron Hopkins accepted his $90,000 a year position with the Shelby County Jail after working at Riker's Island prison. During a recent tour of the jail -- which appeared to have been cleaned up for Hopkins' presence although it was supposed to have been a "surprise" -- this reporter asked whether Hopkins thought that Riker's Island's methods might improve the jail. He replied, "I don't know; I don't remember.")

It isn't that the penal authorities haven't been warned several times that the jail has a major gang problem. Four years ago, when the federal court order was drafted, Sheriff Gilless was given a full report of the gang operations in the jail, including examples of "kites" and other gang paraphernalia. Another report, this one written by head court-appointed jail monitor Douglas Morgan, noted in November 1998 that the gang situation at the lockup was "volatile."

The extent of gang communication and authority at Shelby County Jail borders on the absurd. Members write and post rules governing when other inmates can use the facilities' televisions and phones. They dictate who can buy what and when during commissary visits. On a November walk through the jail, this reporter saw several inmate-written rules hanging near phones and TVs.

To keep track of other inmates, gang members write notes to each other called "kites," which they typically fold into the type of triangle wedges grade-school students exchange. The sheriff's department's only gang intelligence officer, Sgt. James Stroud, says that kites are composed of intricate, coded gang language and often carry messages about non-affiliated inmates who have violated gang rules.

For example, one kite urges a man called "Mac Pig" to "break off" an inmate who has mocked gang authority. The institutional coordinator, the title given to the gang member who acts as a sort of jail Godfather, is told that the offending inmate is "false flagging," meaning that he lied about being a gang member. Inmates find information when they conduct "background checks" by calling members outside of jail to inquire where in the inmate is from, in which neighborhood he grew up, who his friends are and so forth. Inmates file the kites in their cells, which some refer to as their offices.

Gang members can also climb the incarceration career ladder by getting specially assigned jobs -- a ranking system that inmates testified began as far back as 1988. Pod and cell monitors are assigned to the east and west side of the jail's four floor cellblocks. Below them are the chiefs of security, the first rung on the jail gang career ladder, assigned to protecting their superiors while they are sleeping or showering.

Mimicking the court system, the institutional coordinator conducts a trial before meting out punishment. In Mac Pig's case, the offending inmate was sentenced to a timed three-minute beating by other inmates. If an inmate objects to his punishment, he can write a letter of "appeal to the Brothers," asking for another trial. Other penalties for insulting gangs: getting one's hair washed in the toilet, licking the inside of a toilet, or the floor.

If the gangs are the jail's single worst problem, the guards may be the second. It is, by all accounts, a dreadful job -- made worse by the all-powerful gangs and the lack of support from the sheriff's department. Not only do jailers receive lower pay than sheriff's deputies with street beats, overtime is common. A shift supervisor will often assign a guard two straight eight-hour shifts without telling them far enough in advance to hire a babysitter, tell a spouse or make arrangements for another job, which many guards hold in order to earn enough money. Constant exposure to filth and poor air circulation has spelled high blood pressure and respiratory illness for many jailers.

The number of guards is inadequate. As of now, there are a total of about 1,000 guards on duty over the course of three eight-hour shifts -- about one guard on duty at any given time for every eight or nine inmates. According to penal authorities and jail monitors, that figure should be one guard for every four or five inmates.

And getting killed on the job is a constant fear. Four years ago, a guard named Deadrick Taylor placed a Gangster Disciple on lockdown, a type of short-term solitary confinement. Within hours, the angered inmate was released and immediately phoned a hit on Taylor. When his shift was over and he had returned to his suburban home, Taylor was shot dead execution-style in his driveway.

Small wonder that there's a joke among deputy jailers: "Go to hell," someone will say. "I'm already here," they respond.

Retired jailer and veteran sheriff department lieutenant Curtis Shumpert is part of a three-member federally appointed jail inspection team assigned to monitor whether the sheriff's department is complying with the court order to improve the jail. Shumpert says that many guards won't interfere with gang activity. They are paid thousands less than street deputies. Most jailers earn about $28,000, while a first-year deputy makes $36,390 and $42,432 by the third year. Low salaries do not make the possibility of gang retaliation worth it.

Moreover, the gangs are so smoothly run that they often escape detection. "The gangs run the place in a very discreet way," says Shumpert. "They [members] will check a new guy's receipts after he's been to commissary to see how much money he has. They'll do this politely and this person will give the receipts up. The members will ask the guy for the stuff he bought and then tell him to go take a shower while they watch to make sure that's all the guy's got on him. They will do this with a smile. A jailer will watch this and not have a clue; he'll think there's a conversation going on."

Douglas Morgan, the former director of the Tennessee Corrections Institute who broad national experience inspecting jails, has spent three years interviewing guards and inmates as part of the jail inspection team. Morgan says guards at Shelby, 68 percent of whom are black women, have few incentives to do their job correctly and deeply distrust the sheriff's department, especially Sheriff Gilless. They feel that the department puts them at unnecessary risk and say that Gilless hardly ever comes to the jail.

Not surprisingly, it isn't always easy to get guards to stay on the job. Morgan and jail inspector Shumpert found that on several occasions, guards falsified their time sheets, sometimes leaving their post unmanned for 30 or more minutes. In November of 1999, there were 32 inmate altercations -- more than one a day. At the time, jailers were required to take incident reports and ask inmates if they wished to press charges. But some jailers have failed literacy tests, raising suspicions that they are illiterate -- and making it hard for them to take the reports.

"Jailers are frustrated and for good reason," Morgan says. "I don't think a lot of them trust who they are working for. It's important that the department start paying them better and teach them how to deal with inmates on a more human level. I wonder sometimes if corrections isn't the last American institution to embrace advancement and sensitivity. If you treat inmates like animals, that's what they become."

Morgan says the guard job is "regarded as a lower position, which is unfair and counterproductive."

Perhaps the most bizarre episode concerning the guards, however, was instigated by Sheriff Gilless. Last June, Gilless and other jail administrators authorized two recruits from a guard training class to dress as computer repairmen and pretend to take guards hostage -- without telling the guards it was a drill. The "gunmen" were told to "strike terror" in the unsuspecting guards, using a starter pistol and an object that looked like an Uzi. The mock terrorists put the unloaded guns to the heads of the jailers, who began to cry and beg for their lives, obviously unaware of the drill.

According to the $22 million lawsuit the guards filed last week against Gilless and other authorities, guards Francine Humes, Catherine Lacy and Geraldine Harvey were told to stand against a wall and were repeatedly threatened, while other guards (whom the lawsuit does not name) were kicked to the ground, had their shoes removed and were dragged across the floor. The gunmen then got on the jail intercom and announced that they had taken over the floor and would release inmates. After the incident, Sheriff Gilless told reporters that he thought the drill was a good idea.

All of this plays out against a background of what investigators claim is the jail's non-cooperation with, even active resistance to, the court order and the monitors whose job it is to assess compliance. Douglas Morgan cites court testimony that Gilless' subordinate, Jail Chief Marron Hopkins, admitted to Sheriff's Department counsel Don Strother that he instructed his subordinates not to talk to court monitors -- an action that qualifies as obstruction of justice because it interferes with the court order. According to court transcripts, guards say Hopkins told them that the monitors were "the enemy." In late November, a guard filed a $2 million lawsuit against the county claiming he was fired for talking to monitors.

"It's frustrating when county officials will not cooperate with us," says Morgan. "The whole idea is to fix the jail. We shouldn't have to go before the magistrate to keep Hopkins from intimidating guards."

Demonstrating a now-familiar disgust with the county's lackluster efforts to improve the jail, Judge McCalla ordered jail employees to sign a contract promising that they would respond completely and truthfully when interviewed by the jail monitors.

McCalla's disgust isn't limited to the jailhouse gang. Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout drew the judge's ire when he didn't show up in court on a day he was slated to testify in federal court about low jailer pay and his knowledge of jail gang activity (Rout opted instead to show fellow Republican Elizabeth Dole around Memphis.) McCalla wondered aloud if he should issue a warrant for Rout's arrest.

As for Gilless, a 66-year-old who plans to retire in two years, his legal problems are well known in Memphis. Last year the twice-elected official settled a $127,862 sexual harassment suit filed by a female dispatcher. Without admitting to guilt, Gilless used $50,000 in public funds to fight the suit, the maximum amount the county mayor could approve without the county commission's vote; he paid the rest himself. Less than four months later, another woman sued Gilless for sexual harassment, alleging that he had forced sex upon her. The sheriff settled out of court.

But those controversies were minor compared to scandals the department faced in 1999 and 2000, including a badges-for-cash scheme that led to federal indictments against one of his top-ranked deputies. Another deputy pled guilty to masterminding a traffic ticket-fixing scam in January, while another was formally charged for raping a female inmate at another county-run facility. In June, the alternative news weekly the Memphis Flyer revealed that 10 out of 19 newly hired sheriff's deputies had arrest histories or felony records.

Despite repeated efforts to contact them, Sheriff Gilless, Jail Chief Hopkins, Deputy Chief Don Wright and Sgt. Stroud of the jail gang intelligence unit refused to comment.

As with penal facilities around the country, many -- though certainly not all -- of Shelby County Jail's problems are caused by overcrowding. As a result, county officials have proposed solutions aimed at either keeping people out of the jail to begin with or moving them more quickly into prisons.

Advocates for inmates say one solution is to make bail bonds lower. "One of the main reasons the jail is crowded is because bonds are too high," says Shelby County Public Defender Rob Gowan. "If you're poor -- and most inmates are poor -- they can't afford even a $3,000 bond. We aren't given a lot of plea bargaining leverage, even for the smallest offenses."

Many defenders feel that they and their clients are the victims of Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons' zero-tolerance policy. Patterned after successful programs in New York, the hardball approach to crime stipulates that law enforcement saturate areas that are high in crime with special street units. The policy prohibits any plea bargaining for people arrested for murder, armed robbery or aggravated assault.

In theory, a no-deals program sounds good, but it is often applied in cities where the poverty index is more spread out. That is not the case in Memphis, where many crime-ridden, highly policed areas are disproportionately poor. Police make between 180 to 200 arrests a day; charges range from driving with a suspended license to first-degree murder.

In fact, Memphis' crime rate for murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault and burglary is higher than the national average: According to the most recent Department of Justice national crime statistics, the city's crime rate ranked ninth among U.S. cities with populations of more than 500,000. (Nearby Nashville ranked third.)

Gibbons believes there are three main catalysts for crime in Memphis: Gangs, with an estimated 15,000 members in the city; drug addiction, which afflicts about 70 percent of the jail's population; and the city's insufficient treatment of the mentally ill, which leads to lower-level misdemeanors and felonies such as vandalism and public intoxication.

Defending his high bonds, Gibbons says, "Lowering bonds simply because an offender can't afford to pay should not be the desire of people who want to empty the jail. The way to alleviate the jail's crowding is to expedite the trial process."

Toward that end, Gibbons offered a written plan last week -- a three-year strategic plan to curb crime by hiring more prosecutors, modeled after Boston's successful approach. That city experienced an unheard-of decade-long decline, slimming its annual homicides to 31 in 1999, the lowest number of killings in almost 40 years. (Crime statistics for 2000, however, revealed that serious crimes rose back up 6 percent.)

Attorney A.C. Wharton, who heads the public defender's office, says he'd like to see officers citing, rather than arresting people for minor offenses. Wharton recently told Judge McCalla that he and other criminal justice officers are trying to clear the clogged system (in 1999, Shelby County's 64 public defenders were strapped with 28,671 cases, causing severe court backlogging) by moving toward faster releases or citation in lieu of arrests. With McCalla and other jail experts, Wharton wonders aloud if long-term solutions from the Tennessee Legislature, in the form of funding or new laws, might be the only way to fix the county jail's huge problems. In particular, Wharton hopes for passage of a "speedy trial law" that would set a time limit for indicting an inmate.

But while that solution would reduce jail congestion, and address some of the civil rights issues involved in holding inmates before they are tried, it would not solve the jail's problems with violence. Wharton is currently defending an inmate who alleges the guards beat him, dragged him down a hallway and made him find his way back to his cell in the dark.

After millions of dollars in lawsuits, beaten and raped inmates and an assassinated guard, the jail's burdens don't seem likely to lighten anytime soon. Judge McCalla has ordered that the sheriff's department and county move quickly to hire more guards and begin segregating hostile inmates, or face what attorneys for the inmates call for -- a $50,000 a day fine leveled against the county and the sheriff individually.

Just before the New Year, the Shelby County Commission approved the hiring of an additional 174 jailers, appropriating $6.2 million for one fiscal year. The jail has not hired additional gang intelligence officers, and the plan it submitted in response to Judge McCalla's order does not mention beefing up the jail's Direct Response Team.

But plaintiff's attorney Robert Hutton, who represented Darius Little, the first inmate to draw attention to the jail's problems, says that if the authorities don't move carefully, they could ignite a powder keg.

"The guards are afraid of the gangs. It makes no sense that the sheriff tighten up control of the inmates, to punish them, unless there is adequate staff to protect the guards and other inmates from gang retaliation," says Hutton. "We've struggled with this for four years; we should think before acting. These are volatile, violent people not used to being crossed or disciplined. Moving too quickly could cause another inmate to be hurt. And the possibility of a riot is real."

Editor's Note: Portions of this story appear in the current issue of the Memphis Flyer, as well as in previous issues.

By Ashley Fantz

Ashley Fantz is a staff writer at the Memphis Flyer. She writes frequently about crime and justice issues.

MORE FROM Ashley Fantz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------