Skip navigation

PLN quoted re death of prisoner at TN county jail

Nashville Scene, April 26, 2018.

Family Demands Answers After Rutherford County Jail Suicide

After Joseph Allen Bauer's death, his family wants the sheriff voted out of office May 1

APR 26, 2018 5 AM
Joseph Allen Bauer was accused of shoplifting less than $100 worth of merchandise from the Walmart off Nissan Drive in Smyrna on Nov. 15.

The allegedly pilfered item or items were promptly recovered, and now, more than five months after Smyrna Police picked him up on theft charges, no one can say what he might have taken.

Not Smyrna police. In an email, Chief Kevin Arnold says the arrest report doesn’t list the specific merchandise “probably due to the fact that Wal-Mart is the prosecutor and not this department.”

Not Walmart either. A company spokesperson says they do not release details on shoplifting incidents and instead refer questions to local law enforcement.

Arrested after being accused of stealing something so unremarkable that no one thought to write it down, Bauer, who would’ve turned 46 Monday, entered the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center. He told a deputy there that he had been suicidal in the past and was ultimately cleared to enter the general prison population without a suicide watch. Less than 24 hours later, he was found hanging from the top bunk in his cell, and he died from the injuries after a few days at a nearby hospital.

According to a Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office internal investigation report, obtained by the Scene through public records requests, at least four jail employees were aware of Bauer’s past suicidal tendencies, including three detention officers and the nurse who cleared him to join the general population.

Now Bauer’s family is demanding answers, and calling for Rutherford County Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh’s job. On Tuesday, May 1, Fitzhugh faces a re-election challenge in the Republican primary against Jim Tramel, a probation officer and former sheriff’s deputy who is campaigning as an advocate for better mental health care and suicide prevention in Rutherford County detention facilities. Bauer’s family is actively supporting Tramel’s candidacy.

“People need to know,” says Jaime Brown, Bauer’s sister. “They need to know the truth of who they’re voting in.”

In 2016, two suicides at the jail in as many weeks led to the firing of the facility’s administrator. Later that year, the Tennessee Corrections Institute’s Board of Control unanimously voted to decertify the Rutherford County facility, in part because of lax inmate supervision and the two deaths. (The jail has since been recertified by the state body.)

Citing the advice of the county attorney, a sheriff’s office spokesperson declined to comment on Bauer’s death. The spokesperson also declined to answer a number of questions about inmate intake procedures and other jail policies. But Fitzhugh, who was appointed sheriff in January 2017 — a week before the previous sheriff, Robert Arnold, pleaded guilty to fraud and extortion charges — says he has instituted new suicide prevention procedures since taking office.

“Our detention and full-time medical staff concentrate on mental health issues beginning when the inmate is booked in,” Fitzhugh tells the Scene.

According to the internal report obtained by the Scene, Bauer asked a deputy to help him get in touch with a local animal shelter so the staff could pick up his animals while he was incarcerated. When the deputy told Bauer he could not make a phone call on behalf of an inmate, “Bauer stated that he had been suicidal in the past but not now.” The deputy referred him to a nurse, who evaluated and cleared him, telling a deputy that “he was fine to go back in the cell.” Bauer’s sister Brown says he was bipolar and had documented suicidal depression.

Bauer was also asked on a medical intake form whether he had “suicidal thoughts or a history of mental health concerns,” but his answer was redacted on the version of the form reviewed by the Scene.

Ben Raybin, a Nashville attorney who has pursued lawsuits in cases involving jail suicides, says jail staff is required to take steps to prevent inmates from dying by suicide, but “only if the jail can reasonably foresee that the inmate is likely to do so.”

“If an inmate is determined to be suicidal, the jail must put them on ‘suicide watch,’ which involves close supervision and removal of things they could use to harm themselves,” Raybin tells the Scene. “If an inmate simply says he ‘used to be’ suicidal in the past, it would be best practice from a medical standpoint to assess the inmate to determine if he is currently suicidal. If a qualified expert determines the inmate is not currently suicidal, the jail is not required to put the inmate on ‘suicide watch.’ ”

According to sheriff’s office policy, general population inmates must be observed once per hour, while deputies are required to check on suicide-watch inmates at least four times per hour. Bauer’s sister Jaime Brown told the Scene that blood work conducted at the hospital was consistent with someone deprived of oxygen for 30 minutes.

More than a week after Bauer’s death, another sister, Stephanie Lewis, wrote to the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office requesting it preserve records about the incident, a move that sometimes precedes litigation. Jaime Brown confirms that the family is considering legal action against the sheriff’s office.

“We just want to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together so that we can try to get a better understanding of what happened to our loved one in those 24 hours we didn’t have any contact with him,” Brown says. “It should never happen. Somebody dropped the ball. When somebody goes in and says that they have suicidal thoughts, you take every precaution. You don’t call their bluff.”

According to a memo in the internal investigative file, Brown went to the sheriff’s office two weeks after her brother’s death demanding to know why he wasn’t on suicide watch, why he was in his cell by himself, and if he had been “offered any of his psychiatric medications that he was on,” among other questions. She was “mad as hell,” she later tells the Scene.

In a press release sent out more than two weeks after Bauer’s death, the sheriff’s office said its investigation into the matter was closed and that Bauer had died by his own hand. It did not note Bauer’s past suicidal thoughts or jail staff’s knowledge of such. The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility found that sheriff’s office employees had abided by standard operating procedure during the incident and that a separate criminal investigation found “no evidence suggesting any criminal activity was involved in the death of Joseph Allen Bauer.”

“Sheriff’s Office employees are trained to respond to such events,” Fitzhugh said in the release. “The Adult Detention Center is committed and adherent to guidelines established by the Tennessee Corrections Institute.”

Tramel, the former deputy who’s now running against Fitzhugh, says the office needs to do more to prevent inmate suicides.

“We’ve had too many suicides within the detention center, and we have to think outside of the box on trying to prevent this,” Tramel tells the Scene. “The mere fact of a deputy going around and checking on cells every so many minutes to me is not aggressive enough in regards to combating this.”

Instead, Tramel suggests, the jail should install cameras in every cell and have deputies monitor the feeds. He also believes the facility should have mental health counselors on hand.

Tramel was fired from the department in 2013, but he later sued, alleging he was dismissed for political reasons, eventually settling the lawsuit for nearly $300,000. He ran for sheriff in 2014 against his former boss Robert Arnold, who has since been convicted on fraud and extortion charges and is currently incarcerated in federal prison.

“My issue with this last [Bauer] suicide … was the fact that he was booked in on a misdemeanor charge [and] he couldn’t post bond,” Tramel says. “I don’t know the questions they asked him about mental health issues. And let’s say he didn’t have any mental health issues. It just [goes] to show that we have to be ready at all times. Not only are we needing to monitor the ones who are suicidal, but now we [have to] go one step further and assume that everybody could be potentially suicidal.”

Tramel, who has reported campaign contributions only from himself, is vastly outmatched in fundraising for the May 1 campaign. Fitzhugh has tallied more than $50,000 in donations, including from local mayors, judicial officers and state legislators.

The timeline detailed in the internal investigation shows that Bauer was arrested early in the afternoon of Nov. 15 and then taken by Smyrna police to the Rutherford County facility. At 5:30 p.m. the licensed practical nurse on duty assessed Bauer and determined he could enter the general population at the jail without extra suicide precautions.

According to Alex Friedmann, associate director of prisoner advocacy group Human Rights Defense Center, licensed practical nurses like the one who cleared Bauer “are cheaper, but they’re also less qualified than” registered nurses and physician assistants.

Friedmann cites a lawsuit in California in which Brentwood-based jail-health-care provider Corizon Health had used the equivalent of an LPN during medical intake when state law required the use of RNs. The case in question resulted in the death of an inmate, whose family said he was hallucinating from alcohol withdrawal when deputies beat and used a stun gun on him. Corizon and the county settled the lawsuit with the inmate’s family, agreeing to pay several million dollars and to use RNs instead of their less-qualified counterparts for medical screenings.

“Some things are hard to predict,” Friedmann adds. “Most suicides occur very shortly after people are booked into jails. You have this overwhelming sense that … you’ve destroyed your life, and there is an enormous amount of humiliation and embarrassment. A fair number of people who end up in jail have pre-existing mental health conditions to start with, and often that’s why they end up in jail.”

Fitzhugh tells the Scene that inmates who experience mental health crises are earmarked for frequent observation, and deputies contact family members. Neither of those steps were taken in Bauer’s case after he was cleared for the jail’s general population. Fitzhugh also says his staff “fosters an environment where inmates feel comfortable alerting deputies if other inmates are experiencing a crisis.”

But one of Bauer’s fellow inmates did notice that he seemed “really down about being locked up” on the day of his suicide, according to a note in the internal report.

“I tried to cheer him up, give him some positive input,” the inmate said.

Another inmate said Bauer told him “he has nobody on the outside to help him.” That inmate offered to help Bauer get in touch with people by phone after an initial court appearance, before which Bauer reportedly seemed nervous.

“I told him don’t worry, and I’ll pray for him, and when he gets back to come to me and we will get him on the phone,” the second inmate wrote in a statement for investigators. “He said OK and walked out, that was the last of him that I saw, I didn’t even see him when he came back.”

Bauer’s family remains angry — “absolutely outraged,” Brown says — as they continue to seek more records from the sheriff’s department and consider legal action. But Brown also wants to turn that anger into electoral change on May 1.


“I don’t want pity,” she wrote in a recent Facebook post supporting Tramel’s candidacy. “I want action and a plan to protect our residents with mental illnesses.”