An inmate stabbed at Metro Jail is suing Mobile County and several officials over “inadequate” conditions he claims led to a man with a violent criminal history sneaking in a “dangerous weapon.”
On the morning of Jan. 11, 2018, Joshua Dickinson, 23, was stabbed by Joshua Sherman Brown, 40, during an altercation that occurred in the cell they were sharing at the time.
According to the lawsuit, both men had been placed there due to their mental condition and both were supposed to be under observation.
Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver acknowledged at the time that Brown had been disruptive when he arrived several hours before the stabbing but was believed to have calmed down by that time.
The altercation sent both men to the hospital and left Dickinson with multiple stab wounds to his right shoulder and arm.
Over the past few years, Oliver has been extremely vocal about the challenges his jail faces due to space limitations and understaffing, and the day Dickinson was stabbed was no exception. In an interview with multiple reporters that morning, he said the jail had clearly failed to adequately search Brown.
“Apparently, a few people didn’t do their job,” he said. “When you book between 15 to 18 thousand people a year, you’re not going to get it right 100 percent of the time.”
Oliver went on to say the size of the docket area where inmates are processed into the jail was too small.
That is a problem Mobile County was aware of at the time and is still in the process of addressing through millions of dollars in planned renovations. Only a few months ago, another inmate was able to sneak a loaded handgun past his initial security screening, though the weapon never made it back into the cells.
Henry Brewster, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on Dickinson’s behalf, commended Oliver’s efforts to bring attention to the deficiencies at Metro Jail, and he even went on to say it has better conditions than a lot of county jails and most state facilities run by the Alabama Department of Corrections.
However, he also said that Oliver’s comments give the impression that officials overseeing the jail — and the Mobile County Commission — were aware of the dangerous conditions there at the time his client was stabbed and could have taken steps to prevent the “physical and emotional injuries” he suffered.
“How is it that a commercially made knife got past all the screening and back into a wedge at the heart of the jail? It appears that someone fell down on the job,” Brewster told Lagniappe. “In the interview [Oliver] gave on the day of the event, he implied there was understaffing, that the physical space was inadequate and that Mobile County was aware of all of this.”
Sheriff Sam Cochran, who is tasked with operating the jail, is named in the lawsuit, along with Oliver and Mobile County. Cochran declined to speak to the specific allegations in Dickinson’s lawsuit, though he did offer some insight into how Brown was able to sneak a knife past a two-step screening process.
“Without getting too graphic, we determined [the knife] had been hidden inside of this inmate’s body and after he got into the jail, he excreted it. It was a locking knife, so it was a really dangerous weapon,” Cochran said. “We do strip searches of all inmates going into the jail, and we have them do some movements that generally will cause something like to come out, or at least be noticed.”
Since Dickinson’s assault at Metro last year, Mobile County has continued to work on some of the structural and procedural issues that Brewster believes led to the attack.
Specifically, those are the number of working correctional officers, the way inmates are grouped together and the physical space in the jail.
Last month, Commissioners approved a 7.5 percent raise for all employees, which includes the correctional officers at the jail. Cochran said he’s hopeful that by improving the baseline pay metro will be able to attract new correctional officers and retain some of its current employees.
As for the concerns of overcrowding, Cochran said the population at Metro often changes and is unpredictable, but the county is currently working to address those issues.
Currently, the county is moving forward with a $15 million plan to renovate the jail’s sally port, docket area and its mental and physical health wards. Separate from that is an effort to “harden” the barracks — a separate building where minimum security, non-violent inmates are housed.
Once those upgrades are completed, the barracks can house medium-security inmates, which will free up space within the jail’s main facility across the street. That will also help the jail implement a more robust classification system that was developed at the suggestion of the Department of Justice, which has been investigating the conditions at Metro for the past 15 years.
The new system more accurately groups inmates together based on their criminal history, which gets to the heart of another concern Dickinson’s lawsuit raises.
According to the complaint, Dickinson was in jail on the day he was stabbed due to a dispute with his aunt that occurred during an “emotional family gathering at his grandmother’s hospital room.”
He was charged with third-degree domestic violence, a misdemeanor. Public records indicate it was the first time and only time Dickinson has been booked into Metro jail.
Brown had been arrested on burglary charges but also had a lengthy criminal history that includes arrests for manslaughter and other violent offenses.
Yet, the two somehow wound up in a cell together. He didn’t speak to the lawsuit directly, but Cochran said the new classification system will hopefully be able to prevent mismatches in the future.
Previously, inmates were grouped together based on the offense they were arrested for but using the new system, things like criminal history and whether an inmate has been to state prison are considered as well.
“It’s based on several studies about how you classify inmates,” Cochran said. “Now these smaller groups of inmates that are classified similarly can be put together, and that will help us with our overall security and protecting more docile inmates from the aggressive, more serious inmates.”
Previously, Cochran told Lagniappe the new classification system is being implemented, but not fully due to the fact that there still isn’t always enough physical space available in the jail. Once the barracks have been upgraded to house a higher classification of prisoners, he expects it to go into full effect.
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