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Shelby County Jail surveillance videos show violent confrontations between inmates, correctional officers

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  1. Court Access
An RCFP attorney represented The Daily Memphian in its effort to access the surveillance videos.
Screen grab of Shelby County Jail surveillance video showing a correctional officer assaulting an inmate
A screen grab from a Shelby County Jail surveillance video shows inmates watching a correctional officer (top right) pull an inmate by the hair after spraying him in the face with a chemical agent. (Courtesy of The Daily Memphian)

Newly released surveillance videos taken from inside the Shelby County Jail in Memphis, Tennessee, show violent confrontations between inmates and correctional officers, including two officers who were indicted last year in connection with the beating death of a different inmate.

The surveillance footage was made public after The Daily Memphian — represented by Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paul McAdoo — successfully moved to access three video exhibits that had been filed with a federal court as part of a civil rights lawsuit that was settled last year.

As The Daily Memphian recently reported, the videos show officers physically assaulting inmates on three separate occasions, seemingly without provocation. In one video, according to the newspaper, a correctional officer can be seen spraying a chemical agent into an inmate’s eyes before pulling him to the ground by his hair and putting him in a headlock before other officers arrive and help place the man in handcuffs.

“All three of them are kind of graphic content,” Ben Wheeler, an investigative journalist who reported the story for The Daily Memphian, told the Reporters Committee. “It’s pretty disturbing because it’s not as if there was a violent act done in the initial buildup from what I could see based on the video. It appeared to be driven by the correctional officers.”

Wheeler learned about the existence of the surveillance videos last October. At the time, he was using PACER — the online system for searching federal court filings — to look up the names of nine deputies who had been charged in connection with the fatal beating of 33-year-old Gershun Freeman.

Wheeler noticed that two of the officers indicted in the Freeman case had also been named in a previous lawsuit, Hester v. Shelby County. In that case, an inmate alleged that sheriff’s deputies at the Shelby County Jail had violated his civil rights by retaliating against him after he filed a grievance against a correctional officer. The parties settled out of court last March.

In the complaint, Wheeler said he saw a footnote that referenced three video exhibits that had been filed with the court. It did not mention that the videos were sealed. In fact, he said, the footnote stated: “These videos have been filed with the court as a public record.”

As it turned out, the videos were saved on a thumb drive that was kept in the judge’s chambers. To access the files, a court clerk told Wheeler, he would have to file a motion with the court.

“And that’s when I called Paul [McAdoo],” Wheeler said, noting that the Reporters Committee attorney was optimistic that they should be able to access the records.

On behalf of Wheeler, McAdoo filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, arguing that the records are not sealed and, thus, are open to the public.

It worked. In early February, District Judge John Fowlkes, Jr. granted The Daily Memphian’s motion to access the records. The newspaper received the records a few weeks later.

Wheeler said it’s important for the public to be able to see surveillance videos showing the treatment of inmates inside the Shelby County Jail, where 40 inmates died over a recent five-year period.

“Our jail is a very dangerous place,” Wheeler said. “People need to realize what is happening.”

Read The Daily Memphian’s coverage of the surveillance videos, including a story about the newspaper’s fight to access the records.

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