Local News

US judge hears Central Prison inmates' abuse claims

Posted August 22, 2013 6:44 p.m. EDT
Updated August 23, 2013 9:56 a.m. EDT

— Corrections officials at North Carolina's maximum security prison must save the video from cameras that monitor key blind spots, says a federal judge who is hearing a lawsuit that accuses guards at of sadistically beating inmates in solitary confinement.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle also told state attorneys they had 10 days to spell out how Central Prison in Raleigh would install cameras to watch blind spots where inmates claim guards took them for unrecorded beatings.

"We are really happy that the judge took this seriously," said Elizabeth Simpson, an attorney for North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, which is representing the inmates. "We're really gratified something's going to be done."

However, state attorneys told him those cameras have already been installed. Boyle said officials must save video from the cameras for two months rather than erasing the images after about a month.

State attorneys want Boyle to dismiss the lawsuit on behalf of eight inmates at Central Prison in Raleigh, but he did not take up their request Thursday.

The plaintiffs include inmate Jerome Peters, who described for Boyle a beating that broke his right hip and fractured bones in his hand and face while he was in the prison's solitary confinement.

"They were stomping me with their feet and hitting me with their hands," said Peters, 48, who is serving 14 years for first-degree burglary.

The inmates accuse 19 correctional officers of taking handcuffed and shackled inmates to blind spots out of view of security cameras, then using "malicious and sadistic force" to beat them.

Former prison administrators Gerald Branker and Kenneth Lassister are accused in the lawsuit of failing to preserve video that might contain evidence and to develop policies on investigating inmate abuse complaints.

Peters entered the courtroom with legs shackled and leaning on a walker after spending months in a wheelchair following the December incident.

Peters said he was handcuffed and escorted by two correctional officers from an outdoor recreation area back to his cell. He told Boyle one of the guards punched him in the face while another grabbed a leg and pulled him the ground. A third correctional officer then helped the other two kick, stomp and punch him, Peters said.

Boyle directly quizzed Peters for several minutes, asking what might have led to the beating.

"They don't randomly pick guys out and beat them up," Boyle said.

Peters said he had complained about guards tampering with his meals or not receiving the food he was due to get.

Assistant Attorney General Jodi Harrison noted Peters had been in solitary confinement after hitting a prison staff member, that he tossed urine on an officer and on the day he suffered the broken bones tried to spit on one of the guards. Peters denied spitting or throwing urine.

State attorneys say there is no merit to the allegations. Corrections officers use force with inmates relatively rarely, but must have that option with up to 192 inmates in the prison's solitary confinement block sent there for offenses committed behind bars, state attorneys wrote in court documents.

That can't justify systematic beatings that violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, the inmates' lawyers contend. Medical records document that inmates who were segregated from other prisoners suffered blunt-force injuries, including broken bones and concussions, attorneys said.

Lassiter was promoted in May to director of 12 prisons in the state's central region. Branker retired in 2011 after The Associated Press obtained a copy of a scathing internal review that found inmates with serious mental disorders were often kept in isolation for weeks, sometimes nude, in roach-infested cells smeared with human waste.