A former prison nurse accused state officials Monday of covering up the circumstances of an inmate's death in 2013, laying out the allegations in testimony before a state legislative panel.
Jessica Jobes, a one-time member of the medical staff at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, says she was on duty the day 55-year-old Elbert Thornton was found unresponsive in his cell, and that she attempted CPR.
The state lists Thorton's death as coming from natural causes. But Jobes says she saw evidence of extreme injuries, including scars and burns on his genitals.
"He had been whipped and tortured for at least a few weeks. I saw bruises in various stages of healing. It was awful. I've never seen torture before or since in my life. I'll never forget it."
The testimony came as lawmakers are debating how tight a leash to keep the Department of Correction on, amid concerns about staffing and safety in the state's prisons. Much of the focus has been on the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, where former employees, the families of inmates and state auditors have described a dangerous environment.
Monday's testimony before the House Government Operations Committee went back farther, to the murky circumstances that surrounded Thornton's death. The Tennessean investigated the case in 2015, finding that despite the state's determination that he died naturally — and a local prosecutors decision not to pursue charges — many people who examined Thornton's body were prepared to declare his death a homicide.
Jobes placed the blame on officials within the Department of Correction, who overruled the medical staff. She says they threatened to fire anyone who spoke out about Thornton's death.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Correction told The Tennessean in 2015 that Thornton's injuries could have been the result of seizures and a spilled cup of hot water shortly before he died.
The panel cut off Jobes' testimony when she told them she'd spoken to the FBI about the incident. Lawmakers said they wouldn't want to interfere with a potential investigation.
But some did question state Correction Commissioner Tony Parker, who was the state's assistant commissioner of prisons at the time of the incident. He says he'll review the case.
At the end of the hearing, the House Government Operations Committee recommended extending the Department of Correction's authorization for two years, instead of the usual four. They say that'll give them greater oversight of prison officials.