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Former inmate files $3 million lawsuit over conditions at Sullivan County Jail

MATTHEW LANE • Nov 1, 2019 at 7:51 PM

GREENEVILLE — The Sullivan County Jail is both deplorable and dangerous, while suffering from overcrowding, inadequate staffing and a lack of security. This has led to the facility creating a “lethal cocktail” situation.

These were some of the allegations made in a federal lawsuit filed earlier this week by a former inmate of the jail, who was assaulted by a correctional officer in October 2018.

Travis Bellew of Kingsport filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greeneville on Monday. Named as defendants are Sullivan County, Sheriff Jeff Cassidy, Capt. Lee Carswell and former corrections officer Christopher Sabo.

The lawsuit makes a number of claims against the defendants, including that the jail suffers from overcrowding and understaffing, that the facility is poorly designed, has untrained officers and is lacking a system that separates violent inmates from nonviolent ones.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

According to court records and published reports, Bellew was incarcerated at the Sullivan County Jail in October 2018. While the inmate was being moved to a cell, Sabo knocked Bellew to the floor and into a closet, where his head struck a mop bucket.

The lawsuit states Sabo then beat Bellew about the head and body with closed fists. Sabo was fired three days later and subsequently pleaded guilty to assault. He was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service.

Attorneys for Bellew argue in the filing that Sabo’s conduct was largely the product of the violent culture created by the decrepit jail conditions.

“Sullivan County has created and maintains a jail environment in which inmates face a substantial risk of being harmed by violence from corrections officers or other inmates,” the lawsuit states.

OVERCROWDED AND UNDERSTAFFED

The Sullivan County Jail was built 35 years ago. Today, the entire facility is designed to accommodate about 620 inmates. However, it typically holds 900 to 1,000 at any given time.

Bellew claims he was routinely housed in a 16-person cell with at least 33 other inmates while sleeping on the floor himself. After he was attacked by Sabo, Bellew claims he was forced to place his bed adjacent to the toilet.

The lawsuit claims at times only two officers are watching upwards of 300 inmates and that the facility itself suffers from numerous design flaws, such as blind spots, maze-like hallways and cameras that can be easily covered.

In the heat of the summer, the HVAC units continually break down; mold can also be seen growing in the cells, the lawsuit states.

“In short, Sullivan County has adopted a widespread practice of deliberate indifference to these dangerous and deplorable conditions,” the lawsuit states.

The claims listed in the lawsuit include use of excessive force, failure to protect an inmate in custody, failure to train and supervise officers, unsafe jail conditions, assault and battery, false imprisonment, and outrageous conduct.

Bellew is seeking class action status in his lawsuit, along with $500,000 in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages.

Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street had no comment on the lawsuit.

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