A corrections captain fired earlier this year after a mentally ill inmate died of thirst appeared in court this week to fight for his job.
Shawn Blackburn, formerly a captain at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, N.C., was dismissed for “grossly inefficient” job performance in April amid an investigation into the death of inmate Michael Anthony Kerr. Correction officials found Kerr dead in the back of a van March 12 after the inmate was transferred from Alexander to Central Prison in Raleigh. The state medical examiner later found Kerr died of dehydration.
The former captain is one of at least nine Alexander employees fired in the wake of Kerr’s death. At least two others resigned, and the N.C. Department of Public Safety says close to 30 people have been disciplined or demoted in some form. Like Blackburn, many are appealing their dismissals.
Although the hearing is a quasi-judicial process that takes place in a courtroom environment, it is not a trial. Rather, Blackburn was making the case he should not have been fired for Kerr’s death. Others investigating the matter for possible criminal conduct include a federal grand jury and the State Bureau of Investigation, which is overseen by the same administrative department as the prison system.
Corrections officials say Blackburn violated policy and demonstrated poor judgment when he left Kerr, who suffered from schizoaffective disorder, confined in handcuffs for five days in solitary confinement, where the inmate had been segregated for more than a month.
“Yes he was an inmate, but he was a human being,” Assistant Attorney General Tamika Henderson, arguing for the state, said. “It comes down to fact that while in control of the Department of Public Safety, a man died after being handcuffed for five days in a segregation cell sitting in his own urine and feces.”
Taking the stand
When he took the stand at the Caldwell County Courthouse in Lenoir this week, Blackburn said he followed policies to keep staff safe from the inmate as they exited his cell, and that Kerr refused dozens of offers by corrections officers to have his handcuffs removed.
“Inmate Kerr could have gotten up to come to the door and have his cuffs removed,” Blackburn said Wednesday. “He chose not to come to the door.”
Testimony revolved largely on the events of March 8, when Alexander staff called a “code blue” medical emergency after Kerr did not respond to corrections officers at the door of his cell.
A team of nurses and guards entered and, following policy, restrained Kerr in handcuffs and leg chains as he laid on his bed.
Blackburn told the court the medical team determined Kerr was OK, and staff members exited the cell after removing the leg irons. Following policy, Blackburn said he told Kerr that he could come to the cell entrance to have his cuffs removed through the trap door.
“Once [the code blue] was cleared, there was no emergency any more and he was considered like any other inmate and expected to comply with orders,” he said.
Kerr remained on the bed, an act Blackburn interpreted as refusal. Because corrections officers don’t have access to inmate medical records, Blackburn said he didn’t know the details of Kerr’s mental health status.
Blackburn testified that it was common practice at Alexander to leave cuffs on inmates who refused to have them removed through the front door, so he ordered officers to check on Kerr every 15 minutes.
“I wanted inmate Kerr to have every opportunity to come out of the restraints,” Blackburn said Tuesday. “I didn’t want them on any longer than they needed to be.”
Restrained for five days
For the next five days, a daily log shows, Kerr remained on his bed when officers checked on him roughly every 15 minutes. He stood only once more around 7 p.m. on March 8, the log shows, before his death March 12.
Retired Central Prison Warden Marvin Polk, who ran the internal investigation into the conduct of Blackburn and others, testified he had never seen an instance of an inmate restrained for five days during his 30 years working for the prison system. Kerr’s case was “totally unusual, even at Alexander,” Polk said, pointing out that at most, inmates would be kept in restraints for two to three hours.
Blackburn recognized the length of time in handcuffs was unusual “once it got past a certain point,” but he said there was no written policy governing when to remove the restraints in this situation. And using his best judgment, Blackburn said he was unwilling to put his staff at risk despite acknowledging that Kerr wasn’t known to be violent to prison workers.
“That doesn’t mean he didn’t have the potential to do that,” he said.
Although he said there was “plenty of responsibility to go around,” Director of Adult and Juvenile Facilities George Solomon told the court Blackburn was the only officer who assumed charge of the facility from March 8 to 12 fired in the wake of Kerr’s death. The culture of the prison, the state argued, stopped even fellow captains from altering Blackburn’s handcuff order.
“I considered him somewhat the catalyst for what was spurred in the Michael Kerr case,” Solomon said.
But Blackburn pointed out that neither the other officers in charge nor his superior, acting prison administrator Roger Moose, chose to change his order. Moose was also fired after the investigation.
“If I was doing the wrong thing, another [officer in charge] could have removed those cuffs,” Blackburn said.
A veteran who served six years in the Army, including a stint in Bosnia, Blackburn has served in North Carolina prisons since 1999, working his way up from corrections officer. He’s now a full-time warehouse manager for Sears Roebuck and Co.
He’s seeking full reinstatement, as well as back pay and benefits.
Through his attorney, Blackburn declined to comment Thursday, as did Henderson and Solomon, who was present for the duration of the hearing. Spokesperson Pam Walker said Wednesday that Solomon would not be available for an interview given the ongoing grand jury investigation.
A decision on Blackburn’s case is expected in February.