WJTV News Channel 12 - State lawyers: Prison staff acted properly in inmate beatings

State lawyers: Prison staff acted properly in inmate beatings

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Lawyers for the state of North Carolina say prison guards used "minimal force" in altercations with handcuffed inmates that left several with broken bones and one confined to a wheelchair.

The office of N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper filed multiple motions this week seeking dismissal of a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of eight inmates who say they were abused while in solitary confinement at Central Prison in Raleigh. The state's filings do not specifically dispute that physical injuries were suffered by inmates who were restrained, but contend that prison personnel acted appropriately.

The alleged beatings all occurred in Unit One, a cell block known as "The Hole" where inmates are kept in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons. The inmates' abuse claims are supported by medical records documenting blunt-force injuries that occurred while they were segregated from other prisoners, including broken bones, concussions and an inmate left unable to walk after his hip was shattered.

"When correctional officers use force to keep order, they have little time for considered reflection and must quickly and decisively balance the need to maintain order and restore discipline through force against the risk of injury to inmates," one of the state's motions says. "Generally, these inmates have been found guilty of disciplinary infractions involving assaults on staff or other inmates. ... As a consequence, Unit One houses the most violent, dangerous and incorrigible inmates in DOC custody."

Inmates in Unit One are only let out of their 80-square-foot concrete cells for one hour a day, five days a week, to stretch their legs in an outdoor "recreation cage" if weather permits. They are also allotted three 10-minute showers a week. Whenever they leave their cells, the inmates are placed in "full restraints" - wrists handcuffed and connected to a chain around the waist, ankles shacked.

In their lawsuit, the inmates alleged they were beaten after being handcuffed, shackled and taken to isolated "blind spots" not covered by the prison's video surveillance system, including a group of isolated holding cells known as "The Desert."

In an affidavit filed as part of one of the state's motions, former prison warden Kenneth Lassiter confirmed for the first time that 11 new video cameras have been installed to cover the spots where the inmates say the beatings occurred and that new procedures have been enacted to ensure that any footage captured of violent incidents is not erased.

The N.C. Department of Public Safety had previously denied requests from the Associated Press to confirm that the new cameras had been installed in the "blind spots," saying to do so would potentially endanger the security of the prison.

Lassiter, one of 23 current or former prison employees named as defendants in the lawsuit, was promoted last month to supervise 12 prisons and given a 15 percent raise.

Though the inmates filed formal grievances for years alleging abuse in Unit One, there is no indication in the state's filings that any of the 23 officers or supervisors involved were ever investigated or disciplined. All but four are still on the job, according to a review of public records.

Former warden Gerald J. Branker retired in 2011 after the AP obtained a copy of a scathing internal review that found inmates with serious mental disorders were often kept in isolation for weeks, sometimes nude, in roach-infested cells smeared with human waste.

One of the violent incidents recounted in the lawsuit filed by N.C. Prisoner Legal Services occurred Dec. 3, 2012, and left inmate Jerome Peters in a wheelchair, according to the lawsuit.

Peters, 48, was handcuffed and escorted by two correctional officers from his cell to an outdoor recreation area when, the lawsuit alleged, one of the guards punched him in the face while the other grabbed a leg and pulled him the ground. The lawsuit said a third correctional officer then helped the other two kick, stomp and punch Peters.

When they were finished, the lawsuit says, the officers put shackles on Peters' ankles and ordered him to walk. He couldn't, the suit said, because his pelvic bone was broken.

A lieutenant later took Peters to see a nurse. Though the inmate insisted his leg was broken, the lawsuit said Peters was given only Tylenol and taken back to his cell.

Hours later, Peters was taken to an emergency room and diagnosed with a broken right hip, and fractured bones in his hand and face. He also had blurred vision and numerous cuts and bruises, according to the lawsuit. He underwent surgery, but was left unable to walk.

Prison records showed Peters, who is serving a 14-year sentence for burglary, was cited on the same day that the lawsuit says he was injured for infractions that include disobeying an order and assaulting staff.

In their response, the state's lawyers ask a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit because Peters will never be able to prove what happened and prison staff should be immune from being sued for injuries inflicted in the course of carrying out their official duties.

The motion says, "Defendants applied minimal force in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline and to resolve a security risk and safety threat, and not maliciously and sadistically to cause harm."

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