Prisons

Respected Virginia Prison Worker Fired for Accidently Hitting an Inmate

Yet plenty of cops who have gunned down innocent, unarmed citizens are still walking a beat.

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Six months after he did it, the Cleveland police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice last year has not even been questioned about the case. There were no indictments of the officers who choked Eric Garner to death in New York. A Michigan state trooper who shot and killed an unarmed homeless man was acquitted of manslaughter and kept his job.

The Washington Post reports that while law-enforcement officers have killed thousands of people during the past decade, only 54 were charged and most of those were acquitted. One criminologist told the newspaper that bringing charges requires something "so over the top that it cannot be explained in any rational way."

All of which has got to grate on Sammy Sexton.

Sexton used to work as a laundry manager at Red Onion, a state prison in Wise County, Virginia. He worked there for 14 years without a single blemish on his record, and even received commendation for helping save the state money on laundry supplies.

A year ago, Sexton and a couple of guards were standing in the hall talking about Any Which Way You Can, a Clint Eastwood comedy about a bare-knuckle brawler named Philo Beddoe. "Me and him was talking about old movies," Sexton said the other day. "I watch a lot of old movies." He likes Comcast channels 231 and 232 for that reason.

In the Eastwood movie, Philo Beddoe has a pet orangutan named Clyde. One of the set pieces in the flick occurs whenever Beddoe says "Right turn, Clyde," and Clyde, seated in Beddoe's truck, flicks his right arm out and KOs someone who needs knocking out.

On this particular day Sexton was, pardon the term, aping that moment in the film when three inmates passed by. According to the Department of Corrections, "Sexton then threw up his arm and accidentally hit an inmate near him in the face."

As a hearing officer later put it, "there was no evidence that indicated the contact was anything other than accidental." Although "the amount of force with which the offender was hit was in dispute," he was "examined in the medical department of the facility and all parties, including the offender, believed no physical harm had occurred." The examining nurse found "no redness, injuries (or) discoloration. Skin in tact (sic)."

Nevertheless, Sexton was fired.

You're not supposed to make physical contact with inmates, let alone strike them in the face, even by accident. But the Department of Corrections argued that Sexton didn't merely touch the inmate; the word it used was "assault." Sexton disputed the term but Sondra Alan, the hearing officer, said that was legal nit-picking. There was physical contact, she noted, and physical contact is "strictly prohibited," so there's no reason to let Sexton keep his job.

Not even his 14 years of spotless service? Nope. A hearing officer can mitigate a punishment, wrote Alan, but only "if the Agency's discipline exceeded the limits of reasonableness."

Well, that's the whole question, isn't it? Alan seemed to assume firing Sexton was reasonable. But the inmate Sexton hit didn't even want medical treatment: "The inmate was taken to the medical area for examination against his will and in violation of (Department of Corrections) policies governing forced medical treatment," says Sexton's lawyer, Hugh O'Donnell, in a court filing. The nurse's clinical notes back that up: "(Inmate) states he was made to come to Medical and he is OK."

And if Sexton had really clocked the inmate, you'd think the guy would have filed a grievance. But he never did.

To make matters worse, the correctional officer who reported the incident involving Sexton had just conducted a strip search of the three inmates, in violation of policy requiring the presence of two officers. Yet that violation of policy didn't earn him so much as a verbal reprimand.

There might be more to this story than the account above. The people responsible for sacking Sammy Sexton, including the former warden of Red Onion and the hearing officer, either won't talk or couldn't be reached. Yet if there were more to the story, then it should show up in the nurse's notes, or in a grievance filed by the inmate, or in a pile of prior disciplinary write-ups against Sexton. It doesn't.

Sexton is still fighting to get his job back after accidentally bopping an inmate too softly to leave a mark. Meanwhile, plenty of cops who have gunned down innocent, unarmed citizens are still walking a beat. Martin Luther King once said the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and it's nice to think he was right. But sometimes you have to wonder.