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Cocke Co. sheriff and jailers face class-action lawsuit, accused of failing to protect "hundreds" of assaulted inmates

The lawsuit was filed in Federal Court, in the Eastern District of Tennessee, according to officials.

COCKE COUNTY, Tenn. — The Cocke County sheriff and jailers are facing a federal class-action civil rights lawsuit, according to court records.

A lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Tennessee on January 11, 2021 claims the Cocke County Jail has been unable to "protect the safety and security of inmates" due to severe overcrowding and under-staffing.

The lawsuit cited public statements Sheriff Armando Fontes made about the jail. He went on record with 10News in February 2020 -- saying the jail was "grossly overcrowded and understaffed" and that there was a "serious risk of safety, and a serious liability for the county.” 

Officials said the lawsuit is for the "hundreds" of inmates injured by assaults over the last 8 to 10 years. It is seeking $30 million in compensatory and punitive damages: $15 million to recover compensatory damages, and another $15 million for punitive damages.

It said the jail is consistently the second-most crowded in Tennessee, had exceeded its 120-person maximum capacity for more than eight consecutive years, and that there had not been any effort by jail officials to separate violent offenders from non-violent ones.

The jail was decertified in 2017 for "lax employee training, staffing shortages, inadequate medical care and safety violations," according to the lawsuit.

At the focus of the lawsuit is a beating it claims happened on Jan. 10, 2020. It said inmate Nathaniel Manning had been picked up by officials for a probation violation and placed in a cell with up to 35 other inmates. 

Another inmate started beating him while another held him down, according to the lawsuit. Correction officers were in another facility, too far away to stop the incident, according to the lawsuit.

Manning was taken to a hospital 5 hours after the beating with multiple facial fractures and severe cuts, according to records. He needed surgery, according to the lawsuit.

Credit: Baker Law Firm
Photo exhibit submitted by the The Baker Law Firm of Nathaniel Manning.

Manning was later released on his own recognizance, without paying a bond. The lawsuit claims that the county has adopted a policy of releasing prisoners who are injured and taken to the hospital because by releasing them the county is not responsible for their medical bills.

His bills ended up costing more than $58,000, according to records.