It all started with a letter from the Robertson County Detention Facility.
Tellis Williams, who was eventually convicted of armed bank robbery, penned a handwritten note to U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell in 2009 about the conditions at the RCDF.
Williams claimed he lost 20 pounds in his first few weeks as a pretrial detainee awaiting a federal court trial.
“I know that both the diet and the way that they feed the inmates here at Robertson County jail are not healthy because I no longer feel healthy,” Williams wrote. “My ribs are visible and I am constantly hungry!”
Campbell ordered a hearing on conditions at RCDF — and now, more than three years later, the county and the federal government have agreed on changes at the facility after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found numerous constitutional rights violations.
But the ramifications of the RCDF investigation reach far beyond the county line. The facility, located in downtown Springfield about 30 miles north of Nashville, has a majority of inmates from the Tennessee Department of Correction and pretrial detainees like Williams.
According to TDOC records, Robertson County housed 184 state inmates on March 31, the most of any county jail in the state. Overall, 73 percent of the inmates at RCDF are either state inmates serving sentences or pretrial detainees waiting for state or federal trials on felonies.
Local felons (4.3 percent), convicted misdemeanor offenders (16.1 percent), and pretrial misdemeanor offenders (6.5 percent) make up the remaining inmate population in Robertson County.
The incentive for the county is an influx of state and federal money to house inmates. The state, whose own prisons typically operate near capacity, pays local facilities roughly $37 per day to house inmates.
As with federal pretrial detainees, the U.S. Marshals Service is responsible for housing alleged criminals while they await trial. However, the USMS doesn’t have an overnight facility in the Nashville area, which means they rely on county jails for detention.
A recent upgrade to the facility nearly doubled the amount of beds, signaling that the RCDF is open for business.
When the new facility opened in 2010, Robertson County pulled in about $1.8 million in prisoner boarding contracts, a figure that includes both state and federal money, according to county finance director Jody Stewart. The projected inmate housing payoff for the 2012-2013 budget year is $3.8 million, more than double what it was two years ago.
During the hearings that followed Williams’ letter, inmates revealed startling details about conditions inside the Robertson County jail. The allegations centered mostly around nutrition. Jonathan Stone, an inmate convicted of bombing a Muslim mosque in Columbia, Tenn., lost 100 pounds in 19 months behind bars due to sparse, non-nutritious meals.
“I noticed my client lost several pounds,” said Ron Small, a federal public defender who served as Williams’ attorney during the case. “It got to the level that needed court intervention. The local jail wasn’t doing anything about it, and my client was suffering. At some point, I was concerned about his ability to make informed choices.”
The county government attempted to argue that the weight loss experienced in prison was “healthy,” according to court records.
But Campbell disagreed and requested a full review of the RCDF by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The investigation of the facility, released by the DOJ in 2011, found that the previous food issues stemmed from a privately outsourced food service company that supplied meals for roughly $1.27 per inmate.
But the DOJ report contained other alarming findings related to suicidal inmates and inmates with mental health problems.
The RCDF allowed inmates on “suicide watch” to simply sign a form agreeing not to harm themselves.
“For someone with suicidal ideation or who is actively suicidal, these ‘contracts for safety’ have little protective validity, yet RCDF is using them in place of an evaluation by a qualified mental health practitioner,” the report reads.
The report also found that the RCDF provided inadequate, possibly unconstitutional, care for mentally ill inmates. It pointed to one case in which a severely ill inmate didn’t receive any mental health care for more than a year. He finally received treatment after he inserted a foreign object “into his urinary and digestive tracts,” according to the report.
Other mentally ill inmates were placed in solitary confinement.
“We did not review a single record that contained an appropriate treatment plan,” the report read.
The federal government filed the civil rights complaint against Robertson County — as well as a joint settlement agreement — on April 26. The agreement lays out a plan to bring RCDF up to standards, including policy, training and employment stipulations.
The report praises the county for “expeditiously” responding to complaints and taking corrective actions.
“It’s nice to see them, after years of doing something wrong, finally, under the threat of the Department of Justice, acknowledge that there were substandard conditions,” said local criminal defense attorney Patrick Frogge. “They are basically doing at that jail what everybody says criminals do, which is deny, deny, deny, then on the threat of something really bad happening, admitting it.”
Frogge also hopes all local facilities with federal pretrial detainees continue to be monitored.
“We’re talking here about pretrial detainees, not people who have been found guilty, so it’s important that we remember they are innocent and that they be treated like human beings,” Frogge said. “I think it’s important for Robertson County and for anybody who contracts with the federal government to be paid top dollar to provide pretrial detention services, that they treat people humanely.”
As for Williams, judge Todd Campbell called him a “whistle blower” and praised his efforts for reform at RCDF.
“I certainly don’t want to characterize a bank robber as a virtuous person, but even people who have made horrible criminal mistakes can also make wise choices, and I think he made a wise choice to challenge these conditions of confinement,” Campbell said. “And it took some fortitude.”
Campbell lowered Williams’ sentence by 20 months due to his efforts. He is set to be released from a federal prison in Mississippi in 2021.