Jefferson County inmate sues sheriff, jail officials over injuries

The W.C. "Dub" Brassell Jefferson County Adult Detention Center is shown in this August 2019 photo.

Christopher Harris, a one-time inmate in the Jefferson County jail, is suing the Jefferson County sheriff and jail officials in connection with injuries he claims to have suffered while being held.

Michael Kaiser of the Lassiter & Cassinelli law firm in Little Rock filed a lawsuit on Monday against Sheriff Lafayette Woods Jr., as well as Lt. Sam Baker and Ed Adams, both jailers, and Carolyn Iverson, a nurse at the jail.

The case involves an incident on Sept. 10, 2021 in which Harris, now 29, claims to have been severely beaten by Baker, causing numerous injuries that Harris says he suffers from to this day.

In March 2022, The Pine Bluff Commercial – through personnel files and internal investigation documents obtained through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests – reported the incident and Baker's appeal of a disciplinary hearing concerning the matter.

The documents also showed what was described as Baker’s pattern of excessive force against inmates, and an existing video appeared to show Baker striking Harris several times.

According to the complaint, Adams, the second jailer, also had a pattern of excessive force against a detainee, dishonesty and falsifying records related to an incident in 2008.

Background information for the complaint states all the defendants knew Harris from prior detention at the jail. Baker also said he knew Harris and his family outside of the jail environment.

Stating that Harris’ behavior changed dramatically, another jailer noted that Harris should be on “psyche medicine,” according to the complaint. On Aug. 10, 2021, the complaint states, Harris submitted a written medical request begging for help for his mental health condition but was never provided care.

On Sept. 9, 2021, the day before the incident, a disciplinary action was filed against Harris and other detainees for an offensive remark that Iverson thought might have been uttered by the detainees.

The next day, Adams ordered Baker to move Harris to solitary confinement in the book-in area of the jail without notifying Harris in advance that Iverson had filed a disciplinary action against him.

The complaint reads that Baker went to escort Harris to solitary confinement and without explaining what was going on, ordered Harris to collect his things because he was moving. Baker did not handcuff Harris before moving him to solitary confinement. Harris requested he be allowed to use a cart to move his things but Baker refused, according to the complaint.

While on their way to the cell, the complaint states, Baker followed Harris at a close distance, and Baker was closely followed by his superior officer, Adams. When Harris, Baker and Adams made it to the cell door, Harris tossed his mattress onto the floor of the cell and turned toward Baker on the threshold of the cell door. According to Baker, which Harris denies, Harris began mouthing off and making threatening statements about what he was going to do to Baker’s family members.

The complaint continues, saying Baker placed his hand on Harris’ chest and shoved Harris into the cell, entered the cell and poked Harris in the forehead with his index finger as Harris raised his hand to protect himself.

The surveillance video appears to show Harris being punched at least 12 times in the facial area while Adams stood by the cell before finally pulling Baker away from Harris.

Medical records showed Harris’ orbital bone above the eye, his jaw, and some of his teeth were broken and his cranial nerve that provides sensation to his upper teeth, the side of his nose, lower eyelid and the middle third of his face was damaged.

An internal investigation into the incident concluded that Baker knowingly violated the policy and procedures set forth by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office by using excessive force against Harris and that Adams did not intervene to protect Harris from the beating in a timely manner.

The complaint states that Judge Alex Guynn, according to a Jan. 31, 2022 transcript regarding Harris' criminal case, ruled from the bench that Baker’s altercation with Harris was “totally unacceptable,” that Baker “was lying” about what happened during the altercation with Harris and that Guynn concluded that Baker “got emotional” and went into the cell and “beat up Mr. Harris.”

Exhibits provided with the complaint include a letter from Warden Grant Harris of the Varner Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction to Baker in which Warden Harris fired Baker for the use of excessive force against an inmate in 2007. In that instance, Warden Harris criticized Baker for entering the inmate’s cell alone to counsel the inmate and stated that it was evident that Baker “was not telling the truth” about how the inmate would have “gotten a baseball-sized hematoma to his left cheek.”

Warden Harris went on to conclude: “There are so many alarming concerns with this incident Mr. Baker, which falls directly on you and the decision you made. Understand Mr. Baker that physical abuse used to punish or harass any inmate will never be tolerated within the Arkansas Department of Correction.”

The lawsuit states Woods knew that Baker had been previously fired by the Arkansas Department of Correction for the use of excessive force when he was hired by the jail.

In a previous interview with The Commercial, Woods said Baker was rehired under then-Sheriff Gerald Robinson’s administration.

Baker went to work for the Jefferson County sheriff’s office in 2007, according to a previous story by The Pine Bluff Commercial.

When Baker applied for the Jefferson County job, he said in his application that he had been previously terminated from the state Department of Correction because an inmate had alleged that Baker had abused him.

During Baker’s background investigation for employment, conducted by Maj. Greg Bolin on July 3, 2007, Baker explained the firing, saying he had gone into an inmate’s cell by himself but had no choice due to the facility being understaffed. He said the inmate was a violent offender and that he was a lieutenant.

When The Commercial reached out to Robinson about initially hiring Baker, Robinson said he was aware of the incident at the Department of Correction but wanted to give Baker a chance because Baker was highly recommended and had references that said he was a good officer.

One of Baker’s half-dozen references called Baker a “very level-headed person who makes good decisions.” Another person said they had “never seen him display a temper” and that Baker was “a good person who helps those in need.”

But seven years later, Baker was fired under Robinson’s administration. The internal documents detailing why Baker was fired in 2014 were not immediately available, but personnel records said the termination had to do with Baker’s “use of force” with detainees. Baker did not appeal that termination.

Records show that Baker reapplied with the sheriff’s office in 2018, and it was noted in Baker’s personnel record that he had been “terminated but recommended for rehire.” Baker was then rehired under Robinson’s administration.

During Baker’s rehiring interview in 2018, it was noted that Baker was currently working with children at the Community Empowerment Council where he said he learned patience and how to approach situations differently. He also said he learned to make better choices in situations and that he had also learned from his previous mistakes.

When the investigator asked Baker if he made any steps to work on himself as a person, Baker stated he’d taken anger management classes and learned how not to overreact.

His personnel records also show several training certificates he received from as far back as 2002 while at ADC with subjects ranging from ethics to administering discipline.

His records also note he was disciplined on Dec. 1, 2021, but the nature of that incident was not immediately available.

The Commercial also reported an appeal hearing that took place on Feb. 22, 2022, at the Jefferson County sheriff’s office in front of a panel consisting of Woods, who is chair of the panel, Chief Deputy Joseph Gorman, Maj. Gary McClain, Lt. Christopher Grider, Lt. Anthony Craig and Sgt. Darinda Smith.

In an Outcome of Grievance Appeal letter from Woods dated March 10, 2022, to Baker, Woods states that, as Baker is a lieutenant, he is required to observe a higher standard of conduct as he serves as “a role model for employees.” Woods goes on to say that Baker is to set an example for employees as to how they are to interpret and apply JCSO policies and procedures.

“I conclude that your conduct makes it difficult, if not impossible, to enforce compliance with the policy by those in which you supervise,” said Woods in his letter.

Woods said after a “careful and thorough review,” he was reducing the initial recommendation of termination to mandatory de-escalation training to be completed as soon as possible. Until the training is completed, Baker cannot work at the jail.

The complaints of the lawsuit lists other related misconduct and evidence of malice including refusal to provide Harris medical care.

Harris was transported to Jefferson Regional Medical Center on Sept. 15, 2021, but still suffered from pain afterward, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit references another inmate who allegedly suffered injuries during a beating that resulted in the inmate’s death.

“The actions or inactions of Defendant Adams, Defendant Baker, and Defendant Iverson between the beating of Mr. Harris on September 10, 2021, and September 15, 2021, when Mr. Harris was finally taken to the hospital, were deliberately indifferent to Mr. Harris’ medical needs,” states the lawsuit.

Three counts of alleged violations were listed in the lawsuit— the Arkansas Civil Rights Act, Violation of the Arkansas Constitution, and allowing of excessive force.

In a statement to The Commercial, Woods said as sheriff it is his primary duty to uphold the law and ensure the safety and well-being of the community.

“I take all litigations seriously even if on its face it appears frivolous or without merit,” said Woods. “While I value transparency and open communication with the public and press, it is counterproductive to comment on active and pending litigations.”

Woods did say that he would be addressing a response to the lawsuit through legal counsel and risk management group and would offer a response at the appropriate time taking into consideration the legal process involved.

“It is essential that we allow these processes to unfold without prejudice,” said Woods. “Rest assured that we are committed to maintaining the highest standards of professionalism and accountability in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.”

The lawsuit is seeking compensatory damages against all of the defendants as well as for punitive damages against them “to punish them for their misconduct and to deter defendants and others fro similar misconduct in the future. …”