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Rioting Flares in Four Prisons, One Dead

July 3, 1985

WARTBURG, Tenn. (AP) _ A series of prison disturbances involving about 1,200 inmates ended today when nearly 200 convicts at the Wartburg facility returned to their cells after a convicted murderer was found beaten to death with a baseball bat, authorities said.

Elsewhere in the state’s prison system, rioting that began Monday night at the Turney Center prison near Only ended Tuesday after inmates burned three buildings. Trouble hopscotched to a prison in Nashville and another in Bledsoe County, but those facilites were also under control by nightfall.

Injuries included five inmates stabbed or beaten, none seriously, and one who suffered a heart attack during the riots.

Overcrowded conditions and new prison uniforms with stripes along legs figured the uprisings, state officials said. Inmates at the Morgan County Correctional Facility at Wartburg who had been allowed out of their cells for a dinner break Tuesday gathered in a prison courtyard and refused to leave until they aired their complaints. They went back to their barracks about 12:30 a.m. today after being granted a 30-minute televised news conference, said Associate Warden Kenneth Aydelotte.

The body of Sammy Vestal, 33, was found in the prison barracks Tuesday night. Vestal, serving a life term for first-degree murder, had been beaten over the head with a baseball bat, apparently by other inmates, officials said.

″Of course, everything branches out from overcrowdedness,″ Warden Otie Jones said. ″They said there are just too many inmates. They said the more inmates you get, the level of food drops down.″

Correction Commissioner Steve Norris and Attorney General Michael Cody planned to discuss the situation today with Gov. Lamar Alexander.

Five guards taken hostage at Tennessee State Prison and one guard held briefly by inmates at Turney Center were released unharmed.

The rioting convicts had extracted promises of no retribution, but officials said prisoners had made things rougher for themselves by burning kitchens, tearing out plumbing fixtures and damaging their living areas.

″They’re complaining about the food, but it’s pretty hard to do anything about it when they burn down the kitchen,″ department spokesman John Taylor said.

Asked whether any convicts would be moved while their quarters are repaired, Taylor said, ″We have no place to transfer them. They may be uncomfortable for awhile, but they’ll have to stay where they are.″

Inmates at Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville also burned their new striped and stenciled uniforms, required as of Monday by law to make it more difficult to escape. Authorities decided to let the women wear personal clothes for a few more days.

In televised news conferences at Turney Center and Tennessee State Prison, inmates griped about the uniforms, overcrowding, poor food and lack of rehabilitation programs.

In Nashville, The Tennessean newspaper received a copy of a petition signed last week by 42 prisoners angry over tiny cells, leaky ceilings, faulty plumbing, inadequate medical care, insensitive guards, poor counseling and lack of reading material.

Tension has been building in the state prisons for years, and the system has been troubled by several well-publicized escapes. Inmates filed suit in 1972 over prisons packed far beyond capacity. Ten years later, U.S. District Judge L. Clure Morton ruled that crowding, poor sanitation, bad food and medical care made for an unconstitutional situation.

The state has until Dec. 31 to reduce the prison population to 7,000. It was 8,200 when Morton ruled in 1982.

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