A new day has dawned at the Muscogee County Prison, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said Tuesday, following Columbus Council’s decision to overrule the city’s Personnel Review Board and fire a longtime problem employee.
“I think this sends a clear signal to those few remaining officers who were waiting to see which way this current was going to go,” Tomlinson said. “I think now we know that there is a new day at the Muscogee County Prison.”
After a hearing that lasted more than five hours on Tuesday, councilors deliberated for close to an hour before voting unanimously to overrule the board and confirm Warden Dwight Hamrick’s firing of former prison Lt. Little Lynn.
Lynn was fired on Nov. 18, but reinstated by the board on Jan. 18. Hamrick immediately suspended Lynn with pay pending the outcome of Tuesday’s rare hearing. Councilor Red McDaniel, who has been on council since before consolidation in the early 1970s, said he can’t remember the city challenging a board decision. Nor could City Attorney Clifton Fay or Director of Personnel Tom Barron, both longtime city employees, recall such a hearing.
“It was a very difficult process and an unusual process. But I’m glad that council agreed that Lt. Lynn needed to go,” Tomlinson said afterward. “I’m very grateful for their decision. It was the right decision, and I was glad to see that it was unanimous.”
Lynn was fired from his $50,052 a year job when an investigation revealed he had a sexual relationship with Correctional Officer Angela Askew, who worked on a different shift from Lynn, but frequently worked on his shift when on overtime. The city also alleged that Askew was given thousands of dollars worth of overtime work because of her relationship with Lynn, which is also a firing offense under city regulations.
Tomlinson said Lynn’s behavior was part of a “dysfunctional” hierarchy that had developed at the prison, which was threatening employee safety and morale.
Several correctional officers testified that they would fear Lynn’s return to the prison, where he allegedly belittled, bullied and intimidated his subordinates. This was often done in the presence of inmates, several witnesses said on Tuesday, which not only weakened the officer’s authority, but also emboldened inmates.
Sgt. Bernard Strong worked under Lynn’s supervision on the second shift. He testified that Lynn instructed him that Askew was one of two officers who would be given preference for working overtime. He also said his management techniques were hurting the staff.
“It certainly put a lot of stress on me. These people were, in my opinion, very justifiably afraid of Lt. Lynn because he used a lot of intimidation tactics against them and against me,” Strong testified. “Morale was going through the floor.”
Strong testified that the prison is a better and safer place since Lynn’s departure.
“It’s a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot better because, in my opinion, the officers have de-stressed tremendously. They’re starting to show the cohesion we need, we’re talking about protecting each other.”
Other witnesses called by the city corroborated Strong’s description of Lynn’s abusive behavior and echoed his concern if he were to come back to the prison.
Attorney Stacey Jackson, representing Lynn, called several witnesses who painted a different picture of his leadership. One of those was Askew, who said she was not aware of the abusive behavior some witnesses recounted and did not think she had been given favorable treatment because of her relationship with Lynn.
Lynn made an impassioned speech to council from the witness’ chair, defending his tenure as a shift commander and pointed to awards and accomplishments under his leadership. He admitted his affair with Askew, but denied that it led to any favoritism.
“Irregardless of what they say about me, I am a professional,” he said. “I did a lot of things to motivate my officers. I had cookouts, came in on my time to do it. I put together a bowling team to help morale. I took my shift out to Carver Park to have a cookout, and they brought their families with them.”
Tomlinson was called as a witness and explained what led to her decision to fire Lynn. She said former Warden Bill Adamson came to her saying that factions had developed among the prison staff and they were abusing employees and creating an unstable, unsafe environment at the prison.
“Lt. Lynn was one of the kingpins,” she said. “As one of the major leaders of this faction, he was able to garner power and was basically running the prison, together with a handful of others, in precisely the way they wished to run the prison.”
On cross-examination, Jackson reminded Tomlinson that she had signed a proclamation praising Lynn when he received a city award. Tomlinson said division directors recommend employees for those awards and mayors sign them as a perfunctory duty.
“I didn’t know he was part of that faction at the time, or he would have been terminated then,” she said.
During Jackson’s closing argument, he appealed for council to respect the work done by the personnel review board, which it appoints.
“Think about the personnel review board,” he said. “Why have it at all if you’re not going to respect the board’s decisions. Just take it out completely. And when an employee has a problem, let’s just take it up with council and we can have these kinds of meetings all the time.”
Tomlinson said after the hearing that she and council do respect the board, but pointed out that they did not have access to the state investigation into the prison, which had not been declassified when it heard Lynn’s case in January. Had they seen the report, she said, she doubted they would have voted to restore Lynn’s position.
Council’s ruling is the last word as an administrative matter. But Jackson said Little still has some legal options he could pursue.
“That’s something I’ll be discussing with him over the next few days,” Jackson said.