By MICHAEL BIESECKER
RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal lawsuit on behalf of eight inmates at North Carolina’s Central Prison alleges correctional officers used “blind spots” out of view of security cameras to beat handcuffed and shackled inmates.
An amended complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court by lawyers at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services says the beatings 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 who is still unable to walk months after his hip was shattered.
N.C. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit names as defendants 21 correctional officers accused of participating in the abuse, as well as two wardens at the maximum security prison in Raleigh. The lawsuit alleges that former prison administrator Gerald J. Branker and current administrator Kenneth Lassister knew about the problems.
Branker’s retirement was announced in 2011 after The Associated Press 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.
The new complaint said the problems at Central have grown even worse under Lassiter, detailing multiple cases of correctional officers using “unnecessary, excessive, malicious and sadistic force” the inmates’ lawyers believe violated Constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
“We are hopeful that the litigation will be resolved quickly and that Central Prison will take concrete measures to improve safety for their inmates,” said Elizabeth Simpson, one of the lawyers for the inmates.
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-miunute 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.
One violent beating was 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 said 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 said 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.
Later in the day, one of the officers reported to have beaten Peters returned to his cell to deliver lunch. When the officer opened the slot in the inmate’s door to deliver his tray, the officer also blasted pepper spray into the cell, according to the lawsuit.
After Peters refused an order to stick his hands, one of which was broken, through the slot to be handcuffed, the lawsuit said an “extraction team” of officers was sent in to forcibly remove him.
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 more than five months later is still unable to walk.
Prison records showed Peters, who is serving a 14-year sentence for burglary, was cited on the same day the lawsuit said he was injured for infractions that include disobeying an order and assaulting staff.
Also included in the complaint is an account of an Aug. 12, 2012, incident in which inmate Billy Riddle’s ribs were broken.
According to the lawsuit, Riddle was removed from his cell so that officers could search it. While he was waiting in handcuffs, the lawsuit alleged a correctional officer punched him in the face. Two officers then took Riddle to a secluded area of holding cells inmates call “The Desert” because they are not covered by video cameras.
There, three officers are said to have punched and kicked Riddle in the chest and torso. Riddle was then locked back in his cell, where his pleas for medical attention were ignored, according to the lawsuit.
It took 11 days before prison staff took Riddle to see a physician assistant, who ordered an X-ray. He was diagnosed with multiple rib fractures.
Riddle, who is serving a 13-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon, is now listed as being in solitary confinement at another state prison in Butner.
On December 6, 2011, the lawsuit said inmate Chardan Whitehead got in an altercation with a guard. One sprayed him in the face with pepper spray and two officers took him to “The Desert.”
There, the lawsuit said three officers beat the restrained inmate unconscious. He was later taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a concussion and received several sutures to sew up cuts on his head and face. He was also blind in his left eye for several weeks.
Depositions of prison staff said there was no policy regarding the investigation of inmate abuse complaints and video tapes that might contain evidence were routinely erased.
Walker, the spokeswoman for the prison system, said information was not immediately available on whether any of the officers named in the lawsuit had been investigated or disciplined.