Ex-Tarrant jailer is arrested in inmate abuse case

Posted Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A former Tarrant County jailer accused by several inmates of harassment and brutality was arrested Thursday night on four warrants alleging official oppression.

Joseph Thornhill, 30, is accused of mistreating four inmates between January and April 2012 while overseeing 59C, a jail pod for inmates with mental health needs.

Allegations include that he shot paper wads at inmates, striking one in the eye; sprayed disinfectant at inmates' genitals, faces or other body parts; and threw 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 Friday morning.

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

The Sheriff's Department hired Thornhill in January 2007 as a civilian detention officer, according to Terry Grisham, a sheriff's spokesman.

He resigned April 26 -- one day after supervisors had instructed him to respond in writing to grievances filed by several inmates.

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

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 and propelled objects at and verbally abused inmates.

Chief Deputy Mike Simonds said the criminal inquiry 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 interviewed about seven 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 based on allegations by four inmates.

Official oppression is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

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

Other allegations made by the inmates, as detailed in the affidavits, include that Thornhill asked an inmate for oral sex, then verbally and physically harassed him 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 an inmate's cell.

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

Another colleague said that Thornhill called inmates "idiots" and 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

U.S. District Court records show that 11 inmates filed federal lawsuits.

Six have been consolidated into one suit, and the others were dismissed for various reasons.

In the still pending lawsuit, which names Thornhill and Anderson as defendants, the six inmates allege that, because of problems with Thornhill's work, Anderson transferred him from the county's Green Bay facility to the main jail at 100 Lamar St. 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 says. "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."

Despite complaints and grievances against Thornhill, the lawsuit states, he was not immediately removed from Pod 59C, allowing him to continue the abuse.

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 by giving him a "wedgie" with the inmate's jail uniform, poured laundry soap down the back of another, and squeezed the injured thigh and buttocks of an inmate who had just been hospitalized.

The lawsuit also says Thornhill bribed or intimidated inmates into performing cruel and degrading acts on one another.

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

Their 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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