Suit: Mentally ill NC inmate often pepper sprayed

Questions have been raised about the treatment of inmates in Unit One, a special 192-bed section at Central Prison known as "The Hole."

Questions have been raised about the treatment of inmates in Unit One, a special 192-bed section at Central Prison known as “The Hole.”

by Michael Biesecker/ from WNCN

Lawyers for an inmate who suffers from a serious mental illness say he was abused at North Carolina’s Central Prison by guards who repeatedly doused him with pepper spray while he was locked in a tiny cell.

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and a victim of childhood sexual abuse, inmate Jerry C. Williams has spent much of his 57 years in state psychiatric hospitals and prisons. He was first arrested at age 10 for shoplifting and began hearing voices in his head in his late teens, according to his prison mental health evaluation.

He was most recently sentenced in 2002 by a judge in his native Wayne County to more than 28 years in prison for being a habitual felon, following a lengthy record of convictions for trespassing, assault and burglary. He has an IQ of 76 that provides him with “borderline Intellectual functioning,” according to prison records.

His case, filed by the state-supported North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, raises more questions about the treatment of inmates in Unit One, a special 192-bed section at Central known as “The Hole.” It is there that those who violate prison rules are punished by being held in solitary confinement.

A federal lawsuit filed by PLS lawyers earlier this year on behalf of eight inmates alleges correctional officers used “blind spots” out of view of security cameras to dispense with beatings to handcuffed and shackled inmates, shattering bones and leaving one confined to a wheel chair.

Williams’ lawyers claim his treatment in Unit One amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It also violates the prison’s own policies and procedures for dealing with inmates with chronic mental illness, they say.

Pamela Walker, spokeswoman for the N.C. Division of Prisons, declined to provide any comment on the lawsuit.

When Williams’ mental disease is controlled with medication, he is described as “pleasant and appropriate.” When it is not, he can be “loud and disruptive,” according to his lawyers.

His prison record lists 142 infractions over the past 10 years, many of them for disobeying orders or throwing cups filled with his own bodily waste. He has also sometimes cut himself and swallowed razor blades, according to records.

“On the solitary confinement unit, some of the primary symptoms of Mr. Williams’s illness — agitation, yelling, kicking, and throwing things — are treated like pure behavior problems that must be punished with the intentional infliction of physical pain,” his lawyers wrote in a court motion filed earlier this month.

A generation ago, people such as Williams lived in a system of state-run psychiatric asylums. However, North Carolina and other states have closed or downsized such facilities in recent years in an effort to focus on short-term stays and save money.

“The prison system has really replaced the old state psychiatric hospitals as the place where mentally ill people end up,” said Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist who studied the effects of long-term seclusion on inmates with mental illness while on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. “It is not a good place for them, and obviously they get sicker. The prison system often responds to their increasingly bizarre behavior in ways that are very sadistic.”

Unit One cells are only 72 square feet, about the exterior dimensions of a small hatchback car. There is one narrow window, covered with a heavy steel grate that makes it difficult to see outside.

Inmates are supposed to be allowed out five times a week to spend one hour in a cramped “recreation cage” and three times a week for 10-minute showers. Whenever they leave their cells, inmates must wear handcuffs and shackles. Inmates complain they often don’t even get those brief excursions.

“The monotony of Unit One’s solitary regime is broken only by periodic inmate disturbances — flooding cells, setting fires, throwing liquids, and screaming, kicking, and banging on the doors,” Williams’ lawyers say in the lawsuit. “And the practice on Unit One is to deploy high-concentration Oleoresin Capsicum pepper spray as the first level response to any such disturbance — regardless of whether a real threat of bodily harm exists, and regardless of the mental health status of the disobedient inmate.”

Records show Williams has spent years cycling between cells in the prison mental ward and solitary confinement in Unit One.

“The first time you get locked up (in the Hole), it about drive you wild,” the lawsuit quotes Williams as saying. “You want to do anything to get out, even kill yourself.”

According to the lawsuit, Williams was locked in his cell on the evening of Sept. 17, 2009, when he became upset that his dinner tray did not include bread or a spoon. While in isolation, inmates often look forward to their meager meals as a highlight of the daily routine.

When a correctional officer returned to collect the tray, Williams initially refused orders to slip it back through a small slot in the cell door in protest. When he finally did, he jammed it through, causing the tray to land on the floor outside.

According to the lawsuit, the officer then blasted Williams with high-concentration pepper spray through the open slot.

That initiated a 3-hour standoff in which prison officials report pepper spraying Williams eight times. His lawyers say video of the incident shows more, including an officer using a large “MK21” canister similar in size to a fire extinguisher and designed for dispersing a large unruly crowd, not for use on an individual confined to a small indoor space with limited ventilation.

All of that high-test pepper spray, according to his lawyers, caused Williams “extreme pain.”

Eventually, an “Anticipated Use of Force” team of officers wearing body armor and wielding batons entered Williams’ cell to extract him with an electrified shield used to pin an inmate to the wall or floor while delivering a debilitating high-voltage shock. On the video footage of the incident, a voice is heard shouting, “Turn it off!” and the camera goes dead.

Williams’ lawyers contend the inmate was dragged from his cell, placed in handcuffs and shackles, and then taken to another section of Unit One where officers took turns punching and kicking him.

Medical records show that when Williams was examined by a nurse nearly two hours after he was last pepper sprayed, he had an abnormally rapid heart rate and low levels of oxygen in his blood — symptoms of overexposure to the chemical irritant. He also had abrasions and broken fingers.

Grassian said solitary confinement can be psychologically damaging even for healthy people. To subject an irrational and paranoid person such as Williams to years in isolation punctuated by violent confrontations only ensures his behavior will get worse and more difficult for the prison staff to control, Grassian said.

Rather than using pepper spray, the officer should simply have shut Williams’ food slot and walked away, the doctor said. Locked in his cell, Williams was incapable of harming anyone other than himself.

“A person like that doesn’t belong in solitary confinement,” Grassian said. “But to then take something as minor (as tossing a food tray) and to use it as a reason to physically punish the guy? That amounts to torture.”


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