North Carolina: Inmates win settlement after they were forced to sit naked in jail cells

From Charlotte Observer

Two young offenders who contend they were forced to sit naked in their cells at the Alexander County jail have reached a legal settlement with the county.

Under the terms of the settlement, the county’s insurance company will pay former inmates Justin Helton and Austin Saddler $15,000 each, according to a source knowledgeable about the settlement.

The two were 16 in 2011 when they say they were forced to go naked for days at a time, sometimes in full view of adult inmates. They allege they were also deprived of their mattresses and their belongings as punishment for trying to tattoo themselves.

When they entered the hallway for meals and showers they contend they were forced to do so completely naked. Their allegations first became public in an Observer story published last year.

Wendy Greene, the Raleigh lawyer who represented the young men, contends that the punishment described by her clients “was not an isolated incident” at the jail in Taylorsville, 60 miles northwest of Charlotte.

“It was an accepted form of punishment,” Greene said. “It didn’t happen just once. And it was not just one person who did it. … Nobody was effectively telling them not to do it.”

Alexander County Sheriff Chris Bowman disputes the allegations. So does Patrick Flanagan, a Charlotte lawyer who is representing the county.

“Based on my investigation, it was an unfounded complaint,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan confirmed that the two young men will receive $15,000 apiece under the settlement. The county’s insurance company – not public officials – made the decision to settle the case, Flanagan said. The insurance company concluded that it would be more expensive to fight the case in court, he said.

Some advocates for North Carolina inmates contend that what Saddler and Helton say happened to them violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

“I’m hopeful that that’s a chapter that is closed for that particular county jail,” Greene said.

Greene drafted a lawsuit, but the case was settled before she filed it. She said she hopes the money will provide her clients “a little something to help them when their feet get settled.”

Saddler and Helton, now 20, are currently in state prison, serving time for probation violations. At the time of the alleged incidents, the two inmates were awaiting trial for larceny and other charges. They were later convicted.

The detention officers who were allegedly involved in the incidents moved on to other jobs before Helton and Saddler made their complaints, according to Bowman. Their departures were unrelated to the allegations, Bowman said.

The alleged incidents happened at the county’s old jail, not the new and expanded facility that opened in 2013. The sheriff’s office revised its policies when it opened the new jail, Bowman said.