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Federal judge weighs prison camera policy

Posted March 21, 2014

— A federal judge will decide whether correctional officers at Central Prison should use handheld video cameras, when feasible, to record unexpected uses of force.

The move comes after a hearing Friday, the latest step in a federal lawsuit alleging that officers beat eight inmates in blind spots away from security cameras or if there were security cameras, the recordings were not retained. 

The court had sought expert advice on security upgrades from veteran correctional official Eldon Vail, whose recommendation is that officers film uses of force with handheld cameras was at the heart of Friday’s dispute.

Assistant Attorney General Jodi Harrison contended that the recommendation is impractical and costly.

But David Strauss, an attorney for North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, which represents the inmates, said the cameras would deter violent behavior.

“When people know they’re being watched, there’s a deterrent effect,” he said. “People behave better when they’re on camera.” 

Attorneys representing the inmates showed a video of an incident last December that they say proves that blind spots persist in the prison.

Survallience video showed a correctional officer using pepper spray against inmate Spanola Gordon, who was inside of his cell in the solitary confinement unit.

Security cameras captured officers escorting Gordon to hose down his eyes – standard procedure for inmates who have been pepper sprayed – but at one point, Gordon disappeared from the view of the camera for an hour.

“I thought that was very ominous,” Simpson said. “I think there’s no excuse for that.”

The correctional officers’ written report noted two incidents where Gordon was taken down by officers while still shackled and handcuffed, but it did not mention Gordon’s injuries, which are documented in medical reports that describe his loose and chipped teeth and cuts on his face requiring hundreds of stitches. 

“There are very, very grave inconsistencies,” said Elizabeth Simpson, another attorney for North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. 

Harrison called Warden Carlton Joyner to the stand, where he testified that the shift to handheld cameras in such instances would drain more than $1 million in prison resources and require additional staff training.

But Joyner also testified that some staff members are already trained to use the handheld cameras.

Joyner said the inmates in solitary confinement are dangerous and that officers exercise discretion when deciding whether to use force on an inmate in a cell.

He added that requiring an officer to operate the handheld camera could divert manpower from other urgent incidents.

But Simpson said the prison needs the cameras to increase safety.

“The reason why that’s so important is because of these gaps in the evidence that we have and the serious injuries that are still being incurred,” Simpson said.





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