Punishment that went too far

Associate EditorMay 10, 2009 

Imprisoning people who have committed crimes isn't guaranteed to turn them into little angels. The combination of poor judgment and an underdeveloped conscience -- throw in anger, deceitfulness and other familiar entries in the catalog of sins -- that greased their path to the slammer can make them tough customers once inside.

Prison staff members have the unenviable job of keeping some inmates from brutalizing others. Meanwhile they must watch out for their own safety. A casual breach of security precautions can be deadly.

Training and good intentions aside, it must be easy for correction officers to slide into the mindset that inmates are the enemy, deserving of anything that happens to them if they cause trouble. Maybe even if they don't cause trouble. After all, they must be lowlife hoodlums and thugs or they wouldn't have gotten busted.

Certainly most officers resist that kind of thinking. And we can assume that many embrace the idealistic notion that along with upholding public safety, they should try to help put inmates back on the path toward good citizenship.

But what happens when a seemingly incorrigible bad actor sets a fire in his cell?

Priorities: Get him out of the cell and fight the fire. A prison fire can turn into a disaster. Make sure other inmates are safe. Find out how the guy managed to start the fire in the first place.

All that assuredly took place last Aug. 3 at a prison in Alexander County, north of Hickory. But something went terribly wrong -- at least from the perspective of inmate Tim Helms. He ended up with paralyzed limbs. And nobody in officialdom seems able to explain how or why. Or to give much of a damn.

Some would file this episode under the category, "Murderer gets his comeuppance." Yes, Helms was sentenced to life terms in the deaths of three people as a result of a car crash in which he was involved. A tragedy like that is one for which the culpable should pay a steep price. But suffice it to say there were facts that should have been mitigating as to his sentence, if they didn't bear on his actual guilt as a drunken driver.

Even without those facts, however, what happened to Helms went too far. His sentence was to life in prison. He was not supposed to suffer incapacitating head injuries.

We have yet to hear an official explanation for his two skull fractures, front and back, that makes sense. He fell not once, but twice? Or he beat his head against the wall, first one way and then the other? It's true that long-term solitary confinement such as Helms endured can unhinge a person. If that's what they think occurred, let's hear it.

As recounted by The N&O's Michael Biesecker, Department of Correction video shows Helms being taken to another cell after he was pulled, supposedly unresponsive, from the one where he had set his bedding on fire. He walks without assistance and has on a t-shirt and pants.

After an interval in the second cell, he is seen being removed from the cellblock, wearing only boxer shorts. Two officers appear to be supporting him. The next day he was taken to a hospital in Hickory, where he told a doctor he'd been beaten, although the chronology is not clear. The doctor reported marks on Helms' body consistent with blows from a billy club, and scans showed bleeding inside his brain.

The SBI investigated, at the Correction Department's request, but didn't get around to it until March. The district attorney weighed various findings and found no basis for any prosecution -- although she later said she had seen only the video of Helms being removed from his original cell. Correction Secretary Alvin Keller declared there was no evidence suggesting Helms was assaulted by officers.

The N&O's requests to see both the SBI's and the department's reports on the episode were denied. Too embarrassing for public consumption? Now it's impossible to gauge the thoroughness of investigations -- who was questioned, what they were asked and what they said.

Here's a guess as to what happened to Inmate No. 0177519, Timothy E. Helms, of late residing in Central Prison's hospital ward with requests for visitation denied: He was mauled during a strip search (contraband batteries with which he'd started the fire reportedly were found). Officers either used what they thought was necessary force to subdue him as he resisted or were provoked into losing their cool. Either way, they goofed.

Helms would be a good candidate for parole at his next hearing, set for June 1, especially since the prison system's medical director has recommended he be released. It's also not too late for District Attorney Sarah Kirkman to take another look. But prosecution or no, all the facts need to be out on the table. That's the only way the state can avoid suspicions of a cover-up. What happened to Helms appears inexcusable, and all the more so if no one must answer for it.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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