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Tennessee court orders unsealing of records in death-row inmate’s civil rights case

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The ruling comes a month after the AP, represented by an RCFP attorney, intervened to bring transparency to the case.

Update: On Feb. 21, 2023, three partially redacted videos were made public in court filings. As the Associated Press and the Nashville Banner reported, the graphic videos show prison staff physically restraining and forcibly medicating Hodges while he repeatedly complains that he is in pain.

A Tennessee court has ordered the state to publicly disclose certain judicial records in a case in which a mentally ill death-row inmate accuses prison officials of providing inadequate medical care and subjecting him to abuse.

In an order issued on Jan. 12, Davidson County Chancellor I’Ashea Myles held that the Tennessee Department of Correction must unseal portions of videos showing prison officials’ treatment of inmate Henry Hodges inside Nashville’s Riverbend Maximum Security Prison, including their use of security restraints. The judge also ordered the release of Hodges’s medical records after the inmate waived his privacy rights so that the documents could be made public.

While Judge Myles ordered some other records to remain at least temporarily shielded from the public, she left open the possibility that she could order their release after she reviews redacted versions of the records.

“We are pleased that the court has decided to bring some much-needed transparency to this high-profile civil rights case,” said Paul McAdoo, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney for Tennessee, who represented the Associated Press in its effort to challenge the sealed court filings. “The public has a significant interest in knowing how incarcerated people are treated in our nation’s prison system, and we are hopeful that even more records will soon be made available to the public.”

Hodges, who is on death row for a 1990 murder, filed his lawsuit last October. He claims that Lisa Helton, Tennessee’s interim commissioner of correction, and Dr. Kenneth Williams, the prison system’s chief medical officer, violated his civil rights by subjecting him to cruel and unusual punishment. Among other allegations, he accuses prison officials of placing him in six-point restraints and strapping him to a mattress without any clothes.

The case has attracted national headlines and raised questions about the state of mental healthcare in U.S. prisons. But much of the case has been shrouded in secrecy. Although the court only ordered Hodges’s medical records to be filed under seal, many additional records have been secretly filed by attorneys for both parties.

Last December, the prison officials sought protective orders that would prevent Hodges from publicly sharing records he obtained in discovery and require those same records to be filed with the court under seal.

Hodges challenged the prison officials’ attempts to shield the court records, including photos, videos, and other recordings capturing prison staff trying to restrain inmates. The Associated Press, represented by McAdoo, sought to intervene in the case to support Hodges’s challenge, arguing that the prison officials’ request for the protective order did not clear the high bar required to justify the wholesale sealing of records in such a newsworthy case. (The Nashville Banner also moved to unseal records in the case.)

“The state doesn’t need to release everything, but it needs to release the right things,” McAdoo said during a December hearing in the case, according to The Tennessean. “It’s a heavy lift — to go through so much footage — but it’s a lift required under the First Amendment.”

In her 17-page decision, Judge Myles ordered the unsealing of all of Hodges’s medical records, noting that the inmate requested that they be made available to the public. However, she held that the prison’s internal affairs investigative reports must be kept under seal because they are protected from disclosure under an exemption to the Tennessee Public Records Act.

Judge Myles’s ruling on the release of photos and video footage was more nuanced: When it came to recordings she described as “more closely akin to bodycam footage than surveillance videos” — including videos that show prison staff using security restraints — the judge said they could be filed by Hodges without a court seal only after prison officials made specific redactions to the videos to protect prison security.

Judge Myles similarly rejected the prison officials’ request to broadly seal a wide range of other photos and videos, including surveillance recordings, instead ordering the officials to make their case for why they should be withheld from the public. The judge ruled that the photos and recordings would remain under seal until she has a chance to privately review the records and hear the prison officials’ specific arguments for shielding them from the public.

“The internal workings and operations of the prison systems in this country are unknown to the public for the most part. Though taxpayer dollars are used to fund the operations, there is very little insight into what actually occurs behind locked doors,” Judge Myles explained in her order. “Other than anecdotal stories from incarcerated individuals, there is rarely a window afforded to the public for oversight and to glean information from an institution which is funded by taxpayers and houses, feeds, and cares for incarcerated individuals. This means judicial records regarding the prison system are an important opportunity for citizens in understanding how the Tennessee Department of Corrections operates on their behalf.”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

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