Guard sprays disabled inmate

The prisoner banged on a door

Staff WriterMay 21, 2009 

— A correctional officer at Central Prison has resigned after spraying disabled inmate Timothy Helms with pepper foam last weekend.

Helms, who suffered severe head injures at a maximum security facility in Taylorsville in August, now lives in the hospital ward at the Raleigh prison.

Keith Acree, spokesman for the state Department of Correction, said that at 3 a.m. Saturday, an officer found Helms beating on the door of the hospital room he shares with four other inmates.

Helms had gotten out of bed, climbed into a wheelchair and then propelled himself to the door, Acree said.

Helms was classified as a quadriplegic by DOC medical staff in a February assessment, but Acree said the inmate has since regained "considerable" use of his limbs.

"He was banging on the door and cursing at the officer and did not stop when he was asked to," Acree said. "That resulted in this officer using pepper spray."

Pepper foam is an irritating mix that sticks to the face and severely stings the eyes, nose and mouth. The foam is superior to pepper spray, according to its manufacturer, in that attempts to wipe it off just push the irritant deeper into the skin and eyes, causing additional pain.

After being sprayed, Acree said, Helms "slid out" of the wheelchair and hit the floor as the officer attempted to handcuff him.

Helms was not injured in the incident, according to the DOC spokesman.

The officer, whose name has not been released by the department, resigned after he was informed an internal investigation into the incident was being opened.

"This agency's job is to protect the public safety and the safety of inmates and employees in our facilities," Alvin W. Keller Jr., the state correction secretary, said in a written release issued Wednesday. "I will not tolerate anyone who operates outside of established policies and procedures and puts that safety at risk."

Acree said there is security camera footage of the incident that will reviewed as part of the investigation. But he said there are no plans to make that video public.

Correctional officers are allowed to use pepper foam to control or deter inmates who display violent, threatening or aggressive behavior, Acree said. However, Central Prison policy requires a supervising officer, such as a sergeant or captain, to be present when pepper foam is deployed, except in life-threatening emergencies. Acree said there was no supervising officer present when Helms was sprayed.

Helms' past treatment by prison staff has already been the subject of two investigations.

The inmate, who is serving a life term for a 1994 drunken driving crash in which three people died, suffered a fractured skull and welts on his back and torso after he set a fire on the night of Aug. 3 inside his cell.

Helms, who was mentally ill and had a low IQ before the Aug. 3 incident, had been held in solitary confinement for more than a year, according to DOC records. He had previously cut his arms with a razor and told a staff psychiatrist he had eaten his own feces. Such behavior resulted in his being cited with rules infractions, resulting in additional time in solitary.

All told, Helms has spent at least 1,459 days isolated from other inmates during his 14 years in prison.

When taken to an emergency room the day after the fire, an ailing Helms told his doctor guards had beaten him with batons. An internal DOC investigation and a subsequent investigation by the SBI failed to determine how Helms was injured, and Keller has said there is no evidence Helms was beaten.

The department has denied requests to make those investigative reports public, saying to do so would "imperil the security" of the maximum security prison where Helms was injured.

Acree said Wednesday it has not yet been determined whether the officer who pepper-sprayed Helms will face outside investigation by law enforcement.

Disability Rights North Carolina, an advocacy group with a federal mandate to investigate cases of abuse against the handicapped, has been reviewing the prison system's treatment of Helms for more than a year.

"We continue to have concerns about the lack of an appropriate response by the prison system to Helms' mental health needs," Vicki Smith, the group's executive director, said Wednesday. "They are not adequately treating his mental health needs and then seem ill-prepared to respond appropriately when he demonstrates behavior that results from that lack of treatment."

michael.biesecker@newsobserver .com or 919-829-4698

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