At Central Prison, lawyers for inmates say, brutality by officers became routine.
Eight inmates in a federal lawsuit alleged that officers who worked inside Unit One – a solitary confinement block at the Raleigh prison – repeatedly committed “malicious and sadistic assaults” in hallways that aren’t monitored by surveillance cameras. All but one of them have won settlements from the state.
The prisoners say officers handcuffed them and then beat them so severely that they were left with broken bones and disfiguring injuries.
Jerome Peters, one of the inmates who won a settlement, says he was handcuffed from behind and was being escorted to his cell one day in 2012 when three officers assaulted him in a prison hallway that was not covered by video cameras.
In an interview, Peters elaborated on the allegations in his lawsuit. The beating was so brutal, he said, “I didn’t know if I was going to live or die.”
By the time the officers stopped, he said, his pelvic bone and left arm were fractured. So were bones in his face. His injuries were so severe that for a year after the attack, he was in a wheelchair, unable to walk.
Uses of force by North Carolina prison officers have risen sharply over the past decade, state data show.
But it’s impossible for the public to know how often officers use excessive force. That’s because officials don’t keep statewide data. The incidents involving the inmates at Central came to light only because an office that provides legal help for inmates filed a lawsuit.
A Charlotte Observer investigation found that assaults on inmates are another sign of systemic problems inside the state’s prison system, where some correctional officers fuel a culture of violence and corruption.
Since 2012, more than 25 state correctional officers have been fired for inappropriate uses of force, an Observer review of state records found. Many more are never fired, partly because the beatings happened in areas not covered by video cameras, say lawyers who represent inmates.
It’s a problem that costs taxpayers, because the state has repeatedly been sued by inmates who allege excessive force.
Lawyers and human rights experts say, abusive treatment by correctional officers violates the constitutional rights of inmates.
Michele Lueking-Sunman, an attorney with N.C. Prisoner Legal Services who helped represent the inmates in the Central Prison case, said that what happened to them amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
“We have to treat people in confinement in accordance with what the Constitution requires,” she said. “If we’re not doing that, we’re not preparing prisoners to rejoin society. And we’re not living up to our obligations as a country and as a state.”
Abuses of authority
In interviews and letters, the Observer heard from dozens of inmates who said officers beat and pepper sprayed prisoners who posed no threat.
At Lumberton Correctional Institution, south of Fayetteville, 10 current and former inmates – and two former staff members – described a pattern of unjustified assaults. Officers routinely beat handcuffed inmates in the “boom boom room,” a spot inside the prison that is not monitored by surveillance cameras, the inmates and staff members said.
One 65-year-old prisoner, Morlai Sesay, says he was so badly beaten inside the prison last year that he was hospitalized for four days. Hospital records obtained by the Observer show he suffered fractures to bones in his face and skull.
In recent months, three more inmates at Central Prison have written to the Observer alleging that officers beat them while they were restrained. Asked about those claims, a spokesman said prison officials have found “no evidence of unauthorized force or staff misconduct.”
From January 2015 through May 2016, more than 30 inmates and family members complained about excessive uses of force to NC CURE, according to Elizabeth Forbes, director of the criminal justice reform group. Among the complaints: Inmates said they were beaten with batons while handcuffed, and prisoners alleged they were pepper sprayed from head to toe in shower stalls.
To be sure, inmates can be violent and unruly, and many have been convicted of heinous crimes. Still, Forbes says, that doesn’t entitle correctional officers to abuse them.
“They don’t have the right to choke them … They don’t have the right to slam their heads against walls,” she said. “But these types of things are constantly happening.”
The overwhelming majority of correctional officers treat inmates with respect, state prison leaders say. And they say they are improving training to help officers defuse tense situations without resorting to force.
“There should never be a time when we act inappropriately and out of control,” said David Guice, the state’s chief deputy secretary of adult corrections and juvenile justice.
Uses of force by prison staff increased more than 60 percent from 2006 to 2016 – years when the prison population remained at roughly the same level, an Observer analysis found. Prison officers used force more than 10,000 times last year, state data show. That included more than 5,400 uses of “hands on physical force” and more than 2,200 uses of pepper spray.
(It’s unclear how many officers and inmates were involved. State officials say they track how many times force is used, and that a single incident may involve multiple officers – and multiple uses of force.)
State officials say they’re not sure what accounted for the increase. But they note that the number of inmates associated with gangs is rising, along with the number of prisoners serving long sentences for serious crimes.
N.C. makes concessions
At Central Prison, complaints about officers who assaulted inmates in “blind spots” had circulated for years before the federal lawsuit was filed, attorneys for the plaintiffs say.
Those lawyers say they were able to corroborate the stories of a number of inmates by using medical records, incident reports and other documents.
One of the inmates was so badly injured that he was unable to see out of his left eye for weeks, their lawsuit states. Another alleges he was left with throat and neck injuries so serious that he found it difficult to speak. A third says he suffered broken ribs but went 11 days without receiving medical attention.
To settle the lawsuit, the state agreed in 2015 to make more than 20 changes at Central Prison, including installing more video cameras to cover the blind spots where beatings reportedly happened. The state also agreed to review the video in all use-of-force cases inside Unit One.
State leaders refused to let reporters view footage from surveillance cameras.
‘The law is the law’
Peters says that in his case, the trouble began over food.
He was at Central Prison in 2012, serving a sentence for first-degree burglary, when he filed a complaint against officers who he said had smashed his food and left handprints on his bread.
Soon afterward, he said, the officers he’d complained about warned that if he left his cell, he’d “regret it.”
On Dec. 3, he said, officers were escorting him back to his cell after recreation when, without provocation, one of them punched him in the face and two others knocked him to the ground. While he was on the floor, three officers repeatedly punched and kicked him, he said.
Efforts to reach the three officers were unsuccessful. Only one of them is still employed with the state prison system.
Peters said the injuries from the beating made walking all but impossible. Nonetheless, he recalls, the officers told him he “had to walk the best way I could.”
He said he struggled to make it up a stairway to the nurse’s office, but the officers who had been holding him upright repeatedly dropped him to the concrete stairs.
Afterward, Peters was taken to an outside hospital, where he underwent surgery for his fractured hip. State taxpayers picked up the bill.
Prison officials provided a different version of events. They cited Peters for an infraction, saying he had tried to spit on an officer and that he resisted when they tried to subdue him. Peters disputes that.
“That was a bunch of bull,” said Peters, now 52. “If an inmate gets assaulted, nine times out of 10, they say the inmate assaulted the officer.”
In a 2015 interview at his home in Gaston, N.C., near the Virginia border, Peters said he had been unable to shake the trauma of the attack. He still walked with a limp. Last year, he got a long-awaited hip replacement, covered by Medicaid. The state also paid him $7,000 to settle his lawsuit.
For those who are behind bars, Peters said, there are few protections.
“The law is the law,” he said. “Everybody is supposed to follow the law. If they break the law, they should be charged like the inmates.”