Tennessee corrections officials are trying to learn how a cop-killer got put in a medium security prison despite a history of violent offenses and at least one previous escape from federal custody.
"It's a question we're asking today," said Dorinda Carter, Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman. "I think we examine our processes and all factors and all of the information we have ... not only for public safety but for the safety of our staff."
Carter said based on the information TDOC had when they evaluated Jesse Mathews, he was classified correctly as medium security.
On Tuesday, Mathews, 27, was moved to the maximum-security prison at West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning, Tenn.
Mathews had been housed since Jan. 25 at the medium-security Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tenn., after an evaluation at the Morgan County Correctional Complex.
Rather than face a death penalty trial, Mathews pleaded guilty to first-degree murder on Nov. 30, 2012, for the April 2, 2011, shooting death of Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin. Mathews killed Chapin and wounded another officer while robbing the U.S. Money Shops on Brainerd Road.
Carter said she is unsure why the facts of Mathews' crime -- that he killed a police officer and wounded another while a federal fugitive -- were not enough to place him under maximum security.
"The charge alone doesn't dictate his custody," she said. "Custody isn't a form of punishment. It's a tool of control."
The department evaluates the "severity of the crime, assaultive behavior, prior incarceration, past escape attempts and institutional behavior and prior felony convictions," she said.
Though medium-security prisoners can move around inside certain areas of a prison, they cannot leave the grounds and are still under observation, she said.
"We followed our policy. We didn't know about the parole violation in Colorado," Carter said.
Since arriving at the medium-security prison, Mathews was able to move about the compound freely and participate in prison programs and work.
Once under maximum security, he'll be on lockdown 23 hours a day and only allowed to move inside the secured compound with other prisoners.
If he leaves the building for any reason, Carter said Mathews will be under armed guard and restrained, as are all maximum-security prisoners.
Under TDOC policy, Mathews will be eligible for a classification review in 30 days, Carter said.
After a guilty verdict in a trial, probation officers prepare a detailed presentencing report so the judge can determine the appropriate sentence.
In cases that end in a guilty plea, no sentencing report is prepared. Carter said more detail provided in that report contributes to classification.
Once a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty in criminal court, their plea, charges and the explanation of those charges are sent to the TDOC, said Executive Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston.
When District Attorney General Bill Cox and Pinkston learned Thursday that Mathews was being housed at a medium-security prison, Pinkston called a TDOC official to share his concern.
Pinkston followed up with a detailed letter with more specifics of Mathews' crime and at least one questionable incident that happened in the local jail.
"Such a [medium security] classification if true is troubling," Pinkston wrote.
While awaiting trial in Hamilton County, Mathews told jailers he had inserted an ice pick into his rectum and couldn't remove it.
Officers transported him to a local hospital, but medical personnel could not find an ice pick, according to a letter Pinkston sent to Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield.
"The story about the pick was reported to us," Pinkston said. "It was determined that it wasn't there, but it still raises concerns."
In his letter, Pinkston said Mathews' attempt to either smuggle a weapon or even to lie about it so he could get out of the jail showed the killer presented safety problems even while in custody.
Mathews was finishing a prison sentence for armed robberies when he fled a federal halfway house in Colorado with the help of a girlfriend and his sister, Rachel Mathews. He and his sister traveled to Chattanooga and met his mother and father, Kathleen and Ray Vance Mathews.
The family members were sentenced as follows for helping Jesse Mathews while he was a fugitive: Kathleen -- 30 years, Ray -- 20 years, Rachel -- 11 years.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...