Shaffer: Hot sauce horror story in Clinton prison

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comDecember 3, 2012 

— The letter makes “Cool Hand Luke” sound like a trip to summer camp.

Six inmates on a prison road crew describe being forced to drink exotic hot sauce and rub it on their private parts.

They say correctional officers had them catch deadly snakes and kiss them on the mouths, then catch rabbits and toss them under passing cars.

They had to simulate sex acts on each other for rewards such as cigarettes and food.

“Only after you eat the hot sauce, you are allowed to work so we can earn gain time and our daily pay of 70 cent that most of us need,” write the men of Sampson Correctional.

An investigation into what really happened at the Clinton prison wrapped up last week, and management is now looking over the findings. Two officers there were transferred to other prisons during the inquiry.

I’m going to stop here and note that we at The News & Observer get a lot of letters from discontented jailbirds, and most of them go straight to File 13. I got one not long ago asking me to do something about cold water in the showers and lousy shows on TV.

I’ve never been to Sampson Correctional, a minimum/medium security prison an hour south of Raleigh, and have no idea whether this collection of convicts is telling the truth.

Their records leave little room for sympathy: Thomas Patten, 25, robbery with a dangerous weapon; Jamey Dowless, 36, manslaughter; Gary Parker, 34, habitual felon; Cedric Williams, 22, manslaughter; Donnie Ivey, 52, habitual felon; Philip Jarman, 27, indecent liberties with a child.

Plenty of people think that whatever happens to killers and child molesters, no matter how gruesome, counts as justice. I’m sure many of them will call me saying so by this afternoon.

The men sent their letter off to U.S. District Court in July, detailing their complaints on two sheets of legal paper riddled with misspellings. In it, they asked for help filing a lawsuit.

On Nov. 19, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake wrote that the inmates letter raised “very serious allegations” and decided to treat it as a civil rights action. She dismissed it though, “unfortunately,” because the inmates sent no filing fee, failed to use the proper forms, didn’t name specific officers and sent their complaint to the wrong district. She left the door open for them to try again.

Their letter caught the attention of Sonia Katchian in Chapel Hill, who does volunteer prison work along the lines of visiting with death row inmates. “My (antennae)went right up when I heard that,” she said.

She wrote to Zachary Kendall, security specialist with the N.C. Department of Public Safety, who wrote back that they knew about the complaints and were investigating. He later wrote that the harassment had stopped and that none on the road squad would face retaliation for coming forward.

The inmates have also picked up help from N.C. Prison Legal Services, although attorney Michele Luecking-Sunman couldn’t say much about it. She doesn’t represent the men and wasn’t able to speak about whether she’d met with them or discussed a lawsuit.

But she confirmed that the investigation continues, adding that it involves two officers who are no longer at the Sampson County prison. Prison Superintendent Lafayette Hall wasn’t in his office Friday or today.

It goes without saying that prison isn’t any fun, but I’ll say it anyway. I once covered a death penalty trial in Texas where an escaped murderer who’d been returned to justice said he preferred lethal injection to any more time behind bars.

It’s punishment. You don’t need to add hot sauce.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service