Like many of the 10 million tourists who visit Music City annually, Xavier University student Curtis Dressman came to Nashville a year ago this month to party and go honky-tonkin’ with his friends.
He left Vanderbilt University Medical Center almost two weeks later with a traumatic brain injury, multiple fractures to his face and teeth, and other injuries.
Dressman, who was arrested on a public intoxication charge after allegedly baring his buttocks on Broadway late one spring Saturday night, suffered his injuries at the hands and boots of a violent criminal who was brought to the Metro Jail later the same night and placed in Dressman’s cell.
Inmate-on-inmate assaults are a nearly daily occurrence in the Metro Jail, making it a dangerous place even for those still considered innocent and awaiting trial. Alleging violations of his civil rights, Dressman is suing the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office for $7 million in federal court.
Citing the pending litigation, Sheriff’s Office officials would not comment. Spokeswoman Karla Weikal said Sheriff Daron Hall would not answer general questions about jailhouse assaults. Department statistics, however, show violence within the jail is not uncommon.
The jail has averaged 26 inmate-on-inmate assaults a month since March 2008. There are a handful of additional assaults each month by inmates against jail staff.
Assaults in other Middle Tennessee jails vary. In Williamson County, for example, there have been only 25 inmate-on-inmate assaults since 2008. Wilson County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Jason Gray said the county jail doesn’t keep statistics on assaults, but he said they are virtually nonexistent. Officials at the Rutherford and Sumner county jails did not respond to requests for information on violence in their facilities.
Dressman, 25, of Kentucky, is represented by Nashville attorney Eddie Schmidt. Schmidt says jail officials acted irresponsibly when they put Jaime G. Lopez in a cell with Dressman when other vacant cells were available. He also says video surveillance clearly shows multiple officers standing idly by while Lopez beat Dressman.
'Ticking time bomb'
Lopez was arrested that night on charges of attempted vandalism, public intoxication and resisting arrest. He was drunk and interfering with a crime scene, according to police affidavits, and began kicking officers when they tried to take him into custody. In a police car, he tried to break through the window with his feet and head, police said.
Lopez had multiple prior arrests on a range of charges, including reckless endangerment. In 2003, he was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after he allegedly drove erratically in an apartment complex parking lot, nearly hitting first-graders exiting a bus before turning his car and speeding toward a woman who worked in the complex’s leasing office. Lopez then fled the scene, according to the charges.
Given Lopez’s history, Schmidt said, jail employees should have noted his violent tendencies and segregated him from other pretrial detainees.
“He was a ticking time bomb,” Schmidt said, “and a totally innocent man’s life has been irreparably changed.”
While a police affidavit states Dressman was acting “belligerent and started becoming hostile while being walked into booking,” Dressman’s lawsuit states that he “did not resist arrest or assault the arresting officers.”
According to an affidavit by Deputy Curtis Gise, Lopez was placed in Dressman’s cell about 1:30 a.m. April 25, 2010.
“Only minutes later Mr. Dressman was found on the cell floor in a pool of his own blood,” the affidavit states. “Mr. Lopez was found with blood on his boots, hands, and blood splatter on his pants. Mr. Lopez stomped Mr. Dressman’s face with his boot(s).”
But Dressman’s lawsuit says that video surveillance shows Lopez was put in his cell half an hour earlier than Gise claims and that Lopez can be seen on camera “swinging downward in a punching manner” while deputies nearby do nothing.
“You can see on the film when the beating occurs,” Schmidt said. “It’s really quite stunning.”
Dressman left the jail on a stretcher about 30 minutes later, the lawsuit says. The public intoxication charge against Dressman was dismissed the day after his arrest, April 25. He wasn’t released from the hospital until May 6.
“This is obviously a very traumatic experience for him,” Schmidt said.
Lopez, who was charged with the assault, later committed suicide while in custody.
Cases hard to win
Nashville defense attorney David Raybin said he is not surprised that inmate-on-inmate assaults happen so frequently in the jail, but he said lawsuits over such incidents are hard to win.
“Prisoner-on-prisoner cases are very rarely successful because, No. 1, you don’t have very reliable witnesses and, No. 2, you can seldom establish liability,” Raybin said. “If you don’t have that, you have no lawsuit.
“Also, most juries could care less about what happens to prisoners.”
Hedy Weinberg, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the Metro Jail’s assault statistics are particularly troubling because the jail is not overcrowded. It actually has so much room to spare that Hall wants to rent 500 open beds to surrounding counties.
“The issue is not space,” Raybin said. “The issue is quality of personnel.”