He was a little 8-year-old third grader at Friendship Christian Academy in Marianna, Arkansas, when he decided he wanted to be a cop. In May 2020 he was sworn in as a deputy in the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and today is a corrections officer at the Roger D. Wilson Detention Facility.
This young man, now 34, is Phillip Thompson. And after only eight months at KCSO, he’s been honored as the December 2020 Corrections Officer of the Month for breaking up a violent attack and probably saving an inmate’s life.
“I have wanted to work in law enforcement since the third grade because of my desire to help people. I like the detention facility because my personality best suits me working in this type of environment,” Thompson explained. “I feel like it takes a certain type of person to treat prisoners with dignity and not everyone is capable of doing that. I think everyone wants to finish a day’s work and be satisfied and proud of what they do. I am.”
For 13 years before moving to Knoxville, this strapping 5-foot, 7-inch man was a U.S. Marine. He quickly admits that going from the Marines to the jail “was a major culture shock.”
He seems to be working out just fine there. Capt. Debbie Cox is the center’s assistant facility commander and supervises Thompson along with Lt. Seth Miller. Cox says of Thompson: “He’s a professional first and foremost. He communicates well and on a one-to-one basis treats them like human beings. He’s the ultimate in what we want as a corrections professional. He’s firm, fair and consistent.”
Thompson, wife Susie and their son, Wyatt, 11, were stationed in Beaufort, S.C., when he retired in April 2020. They began researching where they wanted to settle down.
“We looked at lots of places for quality of life, crime, schools, the economy and such and decided on Knoxville and here we are,” he said. “In fact, earlier this week, we bought our first home in Fountain City.”
On Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, Thompson was working in the Unit 1, Pod C area – the most dangerous pod that houses the worst of the worst –maximum security inmates. He says there were 43 inmates out of their cells that day for recreational time. He was walking amongst them – unarmed – when he noticed an inmate conceal the pod’s broom as another inmate walked by him. “It was kind of surreal. The inmate took the broom and struck the other inmate maybe eight to 10 times and knocked him to the floor. Then he began to stomp the head of the inmate and that’s when I stepped in to stop it.”
The inmate who was assaulted faces charges of felony murder, aggravated child abuse, child neglect, abuse of a corpse, TennCare fraud and theft.
In the maximum-security pod, Thompson says: “You watch everything they do. There is no trust at all. You never let an inmate get behind you. I try to have normal conversations and it’s OK with some of them. Some will only talk with other inmates. You always keep the conversation on a generic level, never personal. These are men charged with murder and attempted murder, rapes, crimes against children, aggravated assaults. You have to stay alert every second.”
Once hired, KCSO deputies have to spend time working at the detention facility. Many want to leave the jail as soon as possible and be assigned to patrol. Not so with Thompson.
“I like it here. I love the work and the people I work with. After I joined the Marine Corps, I gave some thought to fire fighting and teaching,” he says, “but ultimately decided that I’d be happiest in law enforcement and now that I’m at the detention facility I feel like I’ve found a place that I can put my skills and strengths to good use.”
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. He writes this Monday column – Our Town Heroes – for KnoxTNToday.com. Suggest future stories at email@example.com or call him at 865-659-3562.