Former Tarrant County jailer arrested, accused of mistreating inmates

Posted Friday, Feb. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A former Tarrant County jailer who several inmates had accused of harassing and brutalizing them was arrested Thursday night on four warrants alleging official oppression.

Joseph Thornhill, 30, is accused of mistreating four inmates between January and April of 2012 while overseeing 59C, a jail pod reserved for inmates with mental health needs. Allegations include: shooting paper wads at inmates, striking one in the eye; spraying disinfectant at some of the inmates' genitals, faces or other body parts; and throwing a bag of laundry detergent into the face of one inmate.

He was arrested by Crandall police and booked into the Kaufman County Jail, where he remained held Friday morning.

A federal lawsuit filed by six inmates against Thornhill and Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson regarding the alleged mistreatment is still pending.

Thornhill had been hired by the sheriff's department in January 2007 as a civilian detention officer, according to Terry Grisham, a sheriff's department spokesman.

He abruptly resigned April 26 -- one day after department supervisors had instructed him to make a written response to grievances that had been filed by several inmates.

In all, 18 Tarrant County jail inmates had filed grievances against Thornhill, according to the four arrest warrant affidavits.

'A pattern of inappropriate behavior'

A criminal investigation by the sheriff's department began in late June, the affidavits state, to address allegations that Thornhill had kicked an inmate in the groin, propelled objects at and verbally abused inmates.

Chief Deputy Mike Simonds said the criminal investigation was slowed as sheriff's investigators tried to track down inmates who had since been moved to prison or released. In the end, he said, investigators were able to track down and interview about seven of the inmates.

"Once we put everything together, there does seem to be a pattern of inappropriate behavior and some abuse or mistreatment," Simonds said.

On Thursday, investigators obtained arrest warrants for Thornhill in reference to four of the inmates who investigators determined had been victimized by Thornhill. Official oppression is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

Bond on each of the warrants was set at $1,500.

Other allegations made by the inmates, as detailed in the affidavits, include: Thornhill asked one inmate for oral sex, then verbally and physically harassed the inmate when he refused; drew a penis on the back of another inmate's neck with a dry erase marker; and wrote something derogatory in toothpaste on the floor of one of the inmate's cells.

A jail sergeant told investigators that she once saw Thornhill throw a roll of toilet paper at an inmate, prompting her to verbally counsel the jailer about the horseplay.

Another colleague said he had heard Thornhill call inmates "idiots" and that he once sprayed disinfectant on an inmate's back. The colleague said Thornhill had admitted to him that he had struck inmates with staples and rolled up paper that he had shot using a rubber band, the affidavits state.

Federal lawsuits filed

U.S. District Court records show federal lawsuits were filed by 11 inmates in connection with the alleged abuse by Thornhill. Six have been consolidated into a single suit and the remaining were dismissed for various reasons.

In the still pending lawsuit, which names Thornhill and Sheriff Dee Anderson as defendants, the six inmates allege that, due to problems with Thornhill's work, Anderson transferred the detention officer from the county's Green Bay facility to the main jail at 100 Lamar Street in downtown Fort Worth.

"Joseph Thornhill was not properly trained or qualified in the care of special needs, mentally ill, and mentally disabled inmates," the lawsuit alleges. "Joseph Thornhill was not properly supervised or monitored by Dee Anderson. This amounted to conscious or deliberate indifference to the welfare of the Plaintiffs by Defendants."

The lawsuit states though complaints and grievances were made against Thornhill, he was not immediately removed from his duties at Pod 59C, allowing him to continue assaulting inmates.

The lawsuit contains additional allegations against Thornhill, including that he jammed a plastic bottle and a broomstick into the anus of one inmate, injured another inmate by giving him a "wedgie" with the inmate's jail uniform, poured laundry soap down the back of another inmate and squeezed the injured thigh and buttocks of an inmate who had just been hospitalized for the leg injury.

The lawsuit also alleges Thornhill bribed or intimidated other inmates to perform cruel and degrading acts on the inmates.

The inmates are seeking $20,000 total in compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney fees and costs.

The six inmates' attorney, Andrew Ottaway of Granbury, declined to comment Friday because of the pending civil case.

Deanna Boyd, (817) 390-7655

Twitter: @deannaboyd

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