Two corrections officers concocted an elaborate lie, fabricated reports and cleaned up bloody evidence to cover up the assault of an inmate at Columbia Correctional Institution, authorities said Tuesday.
The officers, Sgt. Christopher Michael Jernigan, 37, and Officer Donald Dwight Sims Jr., 21, were arrested Monday on charges that they beat a 41-year-old handcuffed inmate who had allegedly “disrespected” them. They left him in a bloody heap in his cell for “several hours” before he fell unconscious and was taken to the hospital.
When questioned by investigators afterward, the officers claimed that inmate Shurick Lewis had injured himself by falling off his bunk.
But investigators with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement discovered evidence that Jernigan and Sims not only lied about the attack, but that they also ordered other inmates to mop up the prisoner’s bloody cell and dispose of his mattress, bedding and clothes, FDLE said. They never filed an incident report or a use-of-force report, which is required by the Florida Department of Corrections.
Meanwhile, a nurse summoned to the scene, Christina Shiver, allegedly accused Lewis of lying about what had happened, threatened not to treat him and wrote medical reports corroborating the officers’ story, FDLE said.
The investigation determined that prior to the beating, Jernigan and Sims ordered other inmates out of the confinement cell area and escorted Lewis into an area that is not covered by video cameras. Lewis told investigators that Sims “sucker punched” him in the face, then pushed him against the door of the officers’ station. Lewis’ blood spatter was later recovered from the area where the attack happened, according to the arrest reports.
After the assault, witnesses said, Lewis was bleeding from his nose and mouth and his eye was swollen. He was seen by Shiver and sent back to his cell. Several hours later, he was found unresponsive by officers on the next shift and Lewis was transported to Shands Hospital, where he was treated for a broken nose and several facial fractures, FDLE said.
Both officers have been fired by the department. A third officer accused of striking another inmate during the melee was placed on administrative leave but had not been charged as of Tuesday. Shiver also was not charged. FDLE, however, said the case remains under investigation.
A spokeswoman with Corizon, the company that provides healthcare services at the prison, acknowledged that the incident raised “serious allegations” against the nurse, but she did not say whether Shiver continues to be employed by the company.
“At this time we are unable to comment further due to our policy and legal considerations. However, we can assure you that as a physician-led company, our top priority is providing skilled and compassionate healthcare to our patients, and we certainly do not tolerate the behavior alleged in this affidavit,” said Corizon spokeswoman Stuart Ramsey.
Lewis’ mother, Carolyn Davis, 63, was not told about the assault on her son until she was contacted about two weeks later by a Miami Herald reporter.
The attack is among a series of abuse cases leading officer firings and arrests over the past several months. The agency is also under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice.
DOC Secretary Julie Jones said the agency worked with FDLE from the start to ensure that the officers’ alleged misconduct would be thoroughly investigated.
“We will continue to take quick and decisive actions against those involved in abuse, neglect or misconduct of any kind and will cooperate fully with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office of the State Attorney to ensure that any employee engaged in this behavior is held accountable,” she said.
Jernigan, who served in the Marines, turned himself in to the Columbia County Jail on Monday and was charged with aggravated battery, failure to report and evidence tampering. Sims was arrested, with assistance from the Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office, on Monday in Live Oak and booked on charges of aggravated battery and failure to report.
Columbia, near Lake City, is considered one of the state’s more violent prisons, with higher-than-average numbers of use-of-force reports filed by staff. Over the past several years, one inmate was strangled, two were shot and several have killed themselves or overdosed on drugs. A captain was fired last year for failing to report criminal activity. Inmates have filed numerous federal lawsuits alleging that corrections officers routinely solicit violent inmates to harm other inmates.
In the most recent fatality, inmate Myong Sun Ji, 49, died in January under still unexplained circumstances.
Shurick’s record shows he has been incarcerated since 1991 and was serving a 33-year sentence. He had been convicted of aggravated assault and burglary, as well as aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer in Miami-Dade County in 1994.
During his 24 years in custody, he has racked up 80 disciplinary actions, most of them nonviolent.