UPDATE: Pastor and brother of Bradley County Sheriff defends inmate church visit
Pastor Keith Watson said he knew exactly who was coming to church with his brother, Sheriff Eric Watson, last May.
UPDATE: New details have emerged about the church to which the Bradley County Sheriff took inmates. The pastor of Council Baptist Church is Sheriff Eric Watson's brother.
Last May the sheriff brought nine inmates to a church service. Watson said the church trips are part of the faith-based programs. But some aren't happy with the decision and tells Channel 3, the sheriff crossed a line.
Pastor Keith Watson said he knew exactly who was coming to church with his brother, Sheriff Eric Watson, last May. "We have people every Sunday within churches all across America that (are) in some process of adjudication, and even Jesus was arrested,” said the Pastor.
A political action committee said Sheriff Watson endangered the public by taking nine inmates to church. But the co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation said the issue is separation of church and state. “What the sheriff did was crossing the line between state and church. I think it was an ethical problem,” said Annie-Laurie Gaylor.
Watson said the outings, which are a part of his trustee program, will not stop.
According to the Tennessee Correctional Institute a sheriff decides if trustees are required to be in distinctive clothing, and supervised. Photos of the church visit show the inmates in civilian clothing with no guards visible. “It is according to what kind of job they are doing. If they are working the block party, they may wear jeans, and a yellow shirt, tan shirt. If they are working the litter program they will have an orange or green vest on. If they are speaking to a group, they will have regular clothes on,” said Sheriff Eric Watson.
In 2016, American Atheists sued Watson for violating the first amendment by posting bible verses on the sheriff office's Facebook. The department agreed to pay $41,000 in a settlement. “I would see that the county board or whoever supervises the sheriff ought to step in at this point and tell him very firmly he cannot do this again,” said Gaylor.
Bradley County has an ethics committee to make sure elected officials are complying with state and federal standards. It's not clear if the committee will take a look at this issue.
Here is the full statement from Pastor Keith Watson:
"I am the pastor of CBC and I appreciate your interest in the activities of our church. Regarding your questions about inmates being part of our service, we always welcome people to attend our services including people with prior arrests. Within our society, almost 30% of our population has been arrested. We have people every Sunday within churches all across America that is in some process of adjudication, and even Jesus was arrested. As pastor, we never felt threatened by those attending the service and several officers were present during the meeting. If almost 30% of Americans have been arrested, then you and I likely and unknowingly interact with more prior inmates each day than we had in our meeting that Sunday. I invited Sheriff Watson to bring inmates to attend our services feeling that it is important to show the success of faith based rehabilitation. I was a community correction officer for almost 5 years and I understand the need for faith based instruction within our correctional facilities. The current Sheriff understands it as well."
ORIGINAL STORY: Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson is defending his decision to take nine inmates out of jail to visit a public church.
It happened in May of last year.
Sheriff Watson says the nine inmates were in a trustee program at the Bradley County jail. He says inmates in the program are evaluated by jail supervisors, are non-violent offenders and are not considered flight risks.
“I think this is very, very ridiculous for this to even come up a year ago,” says Sheriff Watson.
Sheriff Watson says accusations of him putting the public in danger cross the line.
During a press conference, he addressed the group Christians For Accountable Leadership.
The group uploaded a video on social media showing pictures of Watson and inmates at a Cleveland church.
“There's nothing unsafe about it because this has went on for many years, for trustees to be outside the jail working,” says Sheriff Watson.
The pictures show the nine inmates with no handcuffs. Watson says it's because they were in a trustee program at the Bradley County jail and are considered non-violent.
“All those trustees are not shackled,” Sheriff Watson says. “None of them are basically and matter of fact we have crews out today working on the highway that are not shackled.”
As far as the inmates clothing, Watson says it varies depending on where they are.
But what about security? Channel 3 asked Sheriff Watson if there were guards there that day.
“It was me and four others and one of the four even had his canine with him, Officer Dale Liner,” replies the Sheriff.
“The jail is not just a place you send somebody and let them stay in bed, eating three meals a day,” Sheriff Watson says. “The jail is supposed to be a place where they need reformed and get reformed.”
Channel 3 reached out to Christians For Accountable Leadership and received the following statement:
"After watching Mr. Watson’s press conference, several things need to be addressed.
"First, Mr. Watson claims that Tennessee Department of Correction inmates are routinely released from his jail to work, attend churches, and go to schools. We would ask that any news organizations that desire to report on this matter review the documentation we provided regarding the inmates in question. Several have convictions for violent crimes. Why didn’t Mr. Watson provide the authority for these inmates being out of jail with no shackles, no restraints, and in street clothes during his press conference? Who transported the inmates; what was the manner of transportation; who are the guards that were present; why were guards present if these individuals were “former inmates” as claimed by Mr. Watson; who provided the clothes these inmates were wearing; why were there no guards near any of these inmates in the pictures posted by Mr. Watson? We commend Mr. Watson for his expressed desire to spread the Gospel, but we remind Mr. Watson that Proverbs 10:9 is still true today.
"A Facebook post from Juan Torres on July 5, 2017, two months after he was at the church, shows him in a vehicle with an unidentified female. Mr. Watson is in the background and appears to be picking up trash. Mr. Torres was a Tennessee Department of Correction inmate when the photograph was posted. Mr. Watson stated these inmates are sent out to pick up trash, but perhaps garbage collector is a better job for Mr. Watson.
"Furthermore, Mr. Watson has a documented history regarding inmates. In June 2016, the Chattanooga Times Free Press ran a story regarding Mr. Watson’s contacts with a female inmate. In March of 2017, Mr. Watson’s jail refused to accept prisoners. In April of 2017, the citizens of Bradley County watched a video of Cleveland Police Department officers imploring Mr. Watson’s jail to take a prisoner they had arrested, and Mr. Watson’s jail refused to take the prisoner. The Cleveland Police Department officer was forced to remove the handcuffs and release the prisoner. Last week, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported on a school bus of inmates from the Bradley County Jail breaking down on the interstate. This was not an armored prison transport with cages, this was a school bus. This is a pattern of failure by Mr. Watson.
"Finally, Mr. Watson wasted taxpayer dollars during his press conference attacking private citizens as he has done in the past. We are fully prepared to respond to Mr. Watson’s inaccuracies, but the citizens of Bradley County should not be subjected to political attacks from a man who abuses his power and is more interested in preening and posturing than protecting and serving. It is time for the citizens of Bradley County to rise up and demand better from their Sheriff."