Inmate's plight a travesty

Staff WriterApril 6, 2009 

A picture in Sunday's paper showed prisoner Timothy Helms sprawled in a hospital bed, gown askew, eyes closed, his face obscured by a breathing mask.

What readers couldn't see was the plastic ankle cuff and metal shackle that chained Helms to that bed. As if, by some miracle, the poor slob could get away.

Helms has been a quadriplegic since August.

Before then, he used a pair of batteries to start a mattress fire in the cell where he'd been kept in solitary confinement for 571 days, a place only prison staff could access. The next day he was escorted by correction officers to an emergency room near the maximum-security prison in Taylorsville.

According to prison spokesman Keith Acree, Helms "appeared to have suffered only some minor scrapes" in the blaze. In the days following the fire, by Acree's account, "Tim became ill and was hospitalized."

Sounds like the flu.

The ER doc, though, described blunt trauma injuries and the impression of a billy club on Helms' upper chest and back. His nose and ribs were broken, his skull was cracked and blood had seeped into his brain.

While lying in the hospital, Helms was charged with two felonies: burning a public building and malicious damage to occupied property.

But the malicious damage to a human being? An internal investigation at the prison was unable to determine how Helms was injured. Seven months later, the incident is still being reviewed by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Helms' family members were not informed of these events until they were contacted by my colleague, Michael Biesecker, in February. Michael Helms, Tim's brother, did not know about the fire, or the alleged beating, or the surgery, or his brother's paralysis. He did not even know where his brother had been moved.

Only after sending more than 100 e-mail messages to the governor and prison muckety-mucks did Helms' brother finally receive a one-line answer. Tim had been moved to Central Prison "where there have been no problems and no use of force."

Prison officials have repeatedly denied family requests to visit. They claim Helms doesn't want visitors. They claim he hasn't signed the right form. Hard to do when you can't hold a pen.

For those who believe Helms got what he deserved for his part in a 1994 drunken driving accident that killed three teenagers, consider a few mitigating factors. Consider that Helms was mentally retarded and suffered mental illness. Consider he was deemed competent to confess without an attorney present. Consider that, according to his brother, Tim was so drugged when he agreed to serve three life terms that he did not recognize his mama.

For what it's worth, his family has always maintained that Helms was not the one driving his mother's 1968 pickup the night of that terrible accident.

But even if Helms is guilty, no person deserves to be beaten so severely his body bears welt marks in the shape of a billy club. No one should be left incontinent at age 48. A disability rights group wants him released. Surely he's been punished enough.

The question is what punishment will suffice for the guards who were present when Helms "became ill," and the prison officials who allowed this travesty to occur.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.comor 919-829-4828

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