Hard Luck, Hard Time

Donald Thweatt was once ready to fight for his country. Now he's fighting for his freedom.

Nine days after booking Thweatt, jailers transferred him to the maximum-security unit after he kept using the emergency-only button in his infirmary cell to ask for such things as a phone call and fresh underwear. He bounced between the infirmary and maximum security until Dec. 27, when his cussing and disregard for jail rules prompted guards to transfer him to the supermax unit, where he was locked down 23 hours a day and stripped of all privileges. He was Maced and put in a restraint chair after he fell, then swung at guards during the trip to supermax. By early January of last year, he was back in the infirmary, where he proved a constant drain on the staff. By way of his cell intercom, he asked a nurse her name, then cried, "Fuck you! I'm the man," according to jail disciplinary reports. He refused medication, then demanded it. Files show he raged for hours, refusing to get dressed, then yelling, crying, cursing and hyperventilating.

"It was reported to this officer by the medical staff that inmate Thweatt had pressed his intercom button and said that we are ignorant black niggers," one guard wrote. "This type of behavior by inmate Thweatt is constant and everyday. Even with lockdown time there seems to be no improvement in his behavior." The next day, Thweatt threatened a hunger strike if he wasn't taken off lockdown. But he ate dinner a few hours later and asked for more.

Two days later, jailers moved Thweatt out of the infirmary. In official reports, jailers say he refused to stop swearing and wouldn't get dressed when nurses came with his medication. "The nurse asked him to put his shirt on like he is supposed to," a guard reported. "He said, 'You don't want to look at my titties?' He continually said, 'Fuck you' to us.... I came to the cell [later in the day] and told him to prepare for the nurse. When we came back, he was completely naked with his butt facing us." In official jail jargon, the guard concluded Thweatt had committed three infractions: cursing, failure to comply with an officer's directive and engaging in sexual misconduct/homosexual activities. Thweatt went limp when guards arrived to take him to supermax. Once in the restraint chair, he began cursing and spat in a guard's face, according to reports. Guards initially left him in restraints once they reached supermax, where they put him in solitary confinement.

Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.

Even with just one hour a day out of his cell, Thweatt continued making trouble for jailers. He shut a food slot on the fingers of another inmate. He threw food trays. He suffered from a lack of showers, developing infections between skin folds as a result of accumulated sweat and other impurities. Hemorrhoids exacerbate the condition, he notes. "It's pretty nasty down there," Thweatt says, adding that he's gone as long as two weeks in jail without a shower. The jail has increased his showering privileges, he says, but it still isn't enough.

A shower-room encounter with guards on Feb. 7, 2000, led to a criminal charge. Shortly before taking his shower, Thweatt pulled down his boxers, bent over to show a guard his buttocks and invited him to kiss his ass -- he was upset because he wasn't allowed to use the telephone. A few minutes later, guards noticed water flooding the shower area -- Thweatt had apparently pulled a shower curtain down, resulting in a makeshift dam. "Fuck yourself," he said to a guard who ordered him to put the curtain back up. He refused orders to get out of the shower. He finally got up but insisted on keeping a chair he'd been sitting in. "Inmate Thweatt then stated it was his chair," reads a lieutenant's report. "He was told while on lockdown he could not have the chair in his cell. Inmate Thweatt then attempted to swing the chair at Officer Sullens and myself, who were both in closest proximity to him. This officer then fired one five-second burst of pepper Mace towards his eyes. Inmate Thweatt then rushed towards officer Sullens and myself, punching Officer Sullens in the area of his nose and glancing a blow across this reporting supervisor's face." Guards then restrained Thweatt in a chair and put him in a sally port. After three hours, they removed the restraints and placed him in his cell.

The matter didn't end there. Guard Michael Sullens was sent for X-rays of his face, according to jail reports. Prosecutors say he sustained a broken nose. And Thweatt was charged with misdemeanor assault.

Thweatt says he swung but never hit anyone -- it was another "last act of defiance" as he was taken to the floor, he says. He claims he's the victim and opens his mouth to prove it. He is missing a front tooth. He says guards broke several teeth loose by forcing his face into the shower floor while restraining him. One tooth finally fell out nearly a year later. His attorney says a dental examination confirmed the tooth was damaged in a traumatic injury. Assistant jail director Herbert Bernsen tells the Riverfront Times that he is unaware of any allegation that jailers broke Thweatt's teeth; nor have any other claims of abuse been corroborated, he says.

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