Another 75 inmates sue Gwinnett sheriff over 'gratuitous pain'

The controversy surrounding Gwinnett County's jail rapid response team just got a lot bigger.

Seventy-five current and former inmates filed suit this week against sheriff Butch Conway and Lt. Col. Carl Sims, complaining they were exposed to "gratuitous pain." That's in addition to an earlier lawsuit filed by 12 other former inmates. A federal grand jury is also investigating possible criminal wrongdoing in the way inmates are treated.

One of the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit is 26-year-old Shelby Clark. According to the lawsuit, Clark suffers from mental issues. Deputies reported that she refused their commands to stop banging her head against the cell wall. Video of the encounter shot by deputies show members of the Rapid Response Team rushing in to grab her. One of the RRT members, Aaron Masters, strikes Clark multiple times in her face. The encounter left her eye badly bruised along with one of her arms. According to the lawsuit, Clark has partial vision loss.

"Nobody deserve to be hit like that," her father Brian told me shortly after the incident. "No matter what you do. Nobody should deserve to get hit like that."

Deputy Masters resigned after being arrested on one count of battery. Clark's lawsuit complains she and the other 74 inmates were subjected to "unreasonable, unnecessary and gratuitous pain" even though they were "not posing a threat to the safety of themselves or others."

The inmates plan to use the sheriff's own videos to show -- just like the original plaintiffs -- they were calm and compliant in the minutes leading up to the Rapid Response Team's rush into their cell. Some would be forced to sit in a restraint chair for hours... unable to move or use the toilet.
Neither Conway or Sims would talk on camera, but in a statement the sheriff said "an independent expert familiar with these matters reviewed our practices four years ago and we are confident that the Rapid Response Team has been acting well within legal bounds while protecting the institutional security of the Gwinnett County Jail and minimizing injuries to inmates and deputies alike. Our staff continuously assesses all areas of operations in an effort to follow best practices and provide the best services possible."

Here's what the sheriff told me in early 2015 when we reported on the first lawsuit. That case is still pending.

"We have inmates who come in here on alcohol, drugs, with mental problems that you can't control without the use of force."

I pointed out that some of the videos did not show inmates harming themselves or others before the RRT rushed in.

"Right," sheriff Conway told me then. "And that's something we've changed since this lawsuit and since your airing some of the video footage and asking that question."

But the restraint chairs are still in use, as is the Rapid Response Team. The sheriff did order his deputies to start their recording earlier before entering a cell.
Despite that change, Gwinnett County now faces a criminal investigation. This summer, a federal grand jury subpoenaed all Rapid Response records and videos from 2016 on.

That includes the incident that left a black eye on Shelby Clark... and this sheriff's office.