The chaotic call came in on Friday, Oct. 7 at 2:42 p.m. It was from Death Row.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“7475 Cockrill Bend Blvd, Nashville, TN, area code 37243.”
Riverbend maximum security institution.
“Um, yes, it’s the prison.”
Nearly one minute into the call, there’s no indication of the problem.
911: “OK, tell me exactly what’s happening”
Riverbend: “Yes. Okay we have an inmate that cut off his penis.”
911: “How old is he?”
Riverbend: “Um, hold please”
After a delay, another voice answers.
Riverbend: “I’ll transfer you over to our medical staff, okay?”
Another delay. The call is dropped. Thirteen more seconds pass.
911: “Metro dispatch, I got disconnected while I was being transferred to medical. And we’re just trying to figure out what’s going on.
Riverbend: “We have an inmate here who … cut his penis off and needs to get to Vanderbilt as soon as possible.”
Henry Hodges, on Death Row since 1992, had severed his organ with a piece of broken glass as part of an escalating series of events that included smearing feces on the wall, prison guards withholding food from him and at least one suicide attempt. Hodges has been diagnosed as bipolar and prone to psychotic episodes.
Sarah McGee is the coordinator for TASMIE, the Tennessee Alliance for Severe Mental Illness Exclusion.
“That’s a group of mental health organizations and other community advocacy organizations, criminal justice reform organizations that can all agree on one thing, we shouldn’t be sentencing individuals with severe mental illness to death here in Tennessee,” she said.
“In Tennessee, we certainly have had people with severe mental illnesses who we have executed,” said Stacy Rector of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “And we have people currently on death row with severe mental illnesses. You have to wonder how [was Hodges] being supervised? Is he medicated? If so, was the medication being given properly? I mean, there are just a lot of questions we do not have answers to. But obviously, anytime you can have an incident like this in what is supposed to be a secure facility, you have to be worried and think we’ve got a problem.”
Unit Two at Riverbend, Tennessee’s Death Row, has long been regarded as the most docile part of the prison.
“There’s very little drama, the guards kind of like it, when it’s their turn to go to Unit Two, because they know it’d be a relatively quiet shift,” said Kevin Riggs, a minister and Death Row visitor.
There is a rigid route to winning privileges. And inmates don’t take it lightly.
“Your first three years on death row, you’re either a B or C — you’re 23 hours a day in your cell. And then with no write ups after that three years you become a Level A. A Level A inmate can start working, they can be out of their cells for really most of the day. Level A is the best that it’s ever going to be for you. And then if you get a write up, you go back to either B or C and then the process starts all over again.”
Since entering Unit Two in 1992, Henry Hodges has remained at a C level.
“Yes, he’s C level and he’s been C level for a long time, which is another issue,” Riggs said. “It’s not right for somebody to be locked up 23 hours a day, seven days a week and pretty much stuck in solitary confinement for years, you know year after year after year. And, you know, for someone like Hodges you’re talking about decades.”
Regular visitors tell the Banner that the normally calm Unit Two is noticeably different.
“Well, I have to be very careful here,” Riggs said. “The guys are really concerned this go-around because now it happened what two or three weeks ago now and and Mr. Hodges has not returned to Unit Two yet.”
On October 28, 21 days after Hodges’ injury. His attorneys filed a complaint against the interim Commissioner of Corrections and the Chief Medical Officer.
The complaint is disturbing. It reads “Henry Hodges is a human being. He is an adult survivor of a childhood abduction and rape. He is a person who lives with mental illness which results in episodes of severe psychosis. … Currently, defendants have Mr. Hodges strapped to a concrete slab naked. As a result of defendants intentional actions. Mr. Hodges is suffering severe pain, numbness, nerve damage and extreme psychological distress.”
The filing continues: “Defendants actions constitute torture.”
After a late Friday hearing in chancery court on Oct. 28, the Banner spoke with Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry. Why was this matter so urgent?
“I’m incredibly concerned about Mr. Hodges health and well being who has been restrained now for eight days solid,” Henry said. “When I saw him yesterday, he was unable to move his right leg, his left side was numb. And I am very concerned about possible permanent nerve damage that could keep him from walking. I’m pleased at least that the judge’s order is going to provide some level of care that hopefully ameliorates the risk of bed sores and permanent nerve damage.”
Henry asked Chancellor I’Ashea Myles to move Hodges, which would be extremely rare. She is expected to rule on the request on Nov. 14. In the interim, Myles ordered that Hodges be clothed and lights turned off when he needs to sleep.
“I’ve known Mr. Hodges for 22 years. Mr. Hodges has always suffered from a severe psychiatric disability. But when handled correctly, he is able to not get this to this point. But when he is agitated by the corrections officers, that’s when his psychosis becomes worse. And here we’ve seen it just the worst possible scenario.”
Following the hearing, the state Attorney General’s office declined to comment.
Hodges had reconstructive surgery at Vanderbilt at taxpayer expense. Earlier this year, Hodges filed a motion without legal counsel asking to be executed.
“Over the last decade, I would say many states —about half of those that still have the death penalty in the United States — have pursued severe mental illness exclusions,” McGee said. “The most recent thing that happened with Tennessee’s severe mental illness exclusion bill was in March of 2020, literally the day before everything shut down because of COVID, it passed through the full House Judiciary. I mean, that was a huge success for a state like ours.
“I’ve been following other states and, our neighbor to the north, Kentucky passed a severe mental illness exclusion just last year, and signed into law. Ohio has passed a severe mental illness exclusion. You know, and these are our colleagues that we have seen trying to pass the bill just as long as we have and they’ve had very recent success. So we see that as a very real possibility for [Tennessee].”
The Department of Correction says any inmate can request mental health services at any time. The department also says that the chronically mentally ill can be given medication and are then assessed every 90 days.
On the day he harmed himself, Hodges’ attorneys say that he asked to be put on suicide watch.