PLN quoted in article on medical care, access to the courts in NC DOC
North Carolina and the Eighth Amendment
Posted: Sunday, July 5, 2015 5:30 am | Updated: 3:34 pm, Sun Jul 5, 2015.
More than 2,600 miles away on April 2, his brother Greg Shull, 58, fought for survival.
After suffering from internal bleeding, Greg Shull was rushed into surgery at Catawba Valley Medical Center and spent three days in the intensive care unit, according to his grievance.
On April 7, Greg Shull suffered another episode of internal bleeding at Alexander Correctional Institution (ACI) in Taylorsville. He said staff did not help him.
“I laid there in my own blood and waste for over an hour,” Greg Shull wrote in his grievance.
With the grievance, Greg Shull added his voice to a number of complaints about ACI, including the death of a mentally ill inmate Michael Kerr in solitary confinement last year, which have surfaced since the prison opened in 2004.
Taxpayer dollars fund North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services (NCPLS), run by North Carolina’s Office of Indigent Defense Services (OIDS) to give inmates access to the courts to protest medical neglect.
However, an OIDS official told the Hickory Daily Record that after the North Carolina General Assembly cut the budget for NCPLS from $2.89 million to $2 million, the nonprofit has been unable to help inmates in that capacity.
“I think that North Carolina is going to get sued over this,” OIDS Assistant Director Danielle Carman said. “The state is not meeting its obligations.”
EARLY LIFE OF GREG
Greg Shull grew up in Morganton and had a happy childhood.
“He cared about his family more than anything,” Bruce Shull said. “He never had any criminal issues growing up.”
After high school, Greg Shull moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C. and became a bartender. He soon started using cocaine and ran into trouble with the law.
“It all resorts back to drugs,” Bruce Shull said. “He’s been a good brother; he really has, except for those issues.”
After Greg Shull was convicted of numerous non-violent crimes in 2011, 2012, and 2014, including a felony larceny over $1,000, he was incarcerated at Piedmont Correctional Institution on July 18, 2014.
He was assigned to the lowest custody level in the state prison system. Greg Shull has committed zero infractions while in prison, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety Offender Public Information database as of July 2.
Greg Shull said he was transferred to ACI in October 2014 because he suffered from kidney stones. While ACI is a close custody prison, it also has a minimum security unit for inmates with chronic health issues.
After his kidney stones were treated, Greg Shull said he was transferred out of ACI in November 2014.
N.C. prisons spokesman Keith Acree denied Hickory Daily Record requests to interview Greg Shull and his bunkmate, Paul Seelig.
“Management reviewed this request and did not choose to proceed with interviews of these inmates,” Acree wrote in an email.
However, the Hickory Daily Record was able to interview Greg Shull via phone.
Acree also declined to respond to any questions regarding Greg Shull’s medical records or verify medical information Greg Shull gave the Hickory Daily Record.
According to state prison policy, inmate medical records can only be released to doctors or the legal counsel of a live inmate. (There are different rules regarding medical records of deceased inmates and psychological and psychiatric records.)
Inmates do not have access to their own medical records.
Elizabeth Forbes is the director of NC CURE, a statewide organization that advocates on behalf of prisoners. Forbes said NC CURE has received about 4,800 letters from prisoners since 2007.
“Over 75 percent of those letters are regarding serious medical complaints,” Forbes said. “We have received letters from prisoners who claim they found out months or years later they had been diagnosed with cancer, congestive heart failure, coronary disease, hypertension, degenerative disk disease, Hepatitis C, etc.”
Forbes said one prisoner she worked with complained for months about severe abdominal pain and received Tums. Forbes said the prisoner was later diagnosed with cancer and died. Another prisoner with a boil on his groin was given skin cream, Forbes said. The prisoner had to have his leg amputated later due to the infection, according to Forbes.
“This is why NC CURE advocates for prisoners to have the right to review their own medical record,” Forbes said.
As of July 2, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has not responded to questions regarding ACI staff treatment of prisoners.
A HISTORY OF PROBLEMS
Greg Shull said he was transferred back to ACI after complaining about stomach pain on Jan. 16, 2015.
Once he arrived, Greg Shull claimed that no one listened to his complaints. Instead, prison staff accused him of lying and faking his pain, Greg Shull said. He said he was transferred out of ACI seven weeks later, still in pain.
Greg Shull and Forbes aren’t the first to claim cases of abuse from ACI staff.
After opening in 2004, ACI staff started using a “leash-like” tether in a section of ACI with 57 inmates, according to a Charlotte Observer report.
The director of prisons was unaware that staff members were using the leashes until the Charlotte Observer inquired about it in August 2005. The newspaper received a letter from inmates who claimed they were placed on a “dog leash around a chain.”
The N.C. prisons director ordered staff to stop using the leash-like devices, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Three years later, a developmentally disabled and mentally ill ACI inmate Timothy Helms sustained brain damage while in solitary confinement in August 2008 according to another Charlotte Observer report.
The report states that Dr. Jon Giometti treated Helms at Catawba Valley Medical Center.
“The patient has [welt] markings consistent with [being] struck by a Billy club,” Giometti wrote in Helms’ intake report. A Billy club is a club made of wood, rubber, plastic, or metal less than an arm’s length long commonly carried by law enforcement personnel.
An internal prison investigation that ended in 2009 was unable to determine how Helms was injured. In 2009, Prosecutorial District 22A District Attorney Sarah Kirkman said there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges against ACI staff.
Helms died in September 2010.
Last year, a mentally ill inmate named Michael Kerr died while at ACI. The incident led to 25 employees losing their jobs or being disciplined, according to documents obtained by WRAL.com, a Raleigh television station.
Other documents obtained by WRAL.com show that ACI staff repeatedly accused Kerr of faking his psychosis.
Kerr’s psychologist Dr. Karis Fitch, who was fired after Kerr’s death, wrote to a case manager Feb. 24, 2014, that Kerr’s behavior was “an attempt to get to [Central Prison] to be near a specific family member,” and was “malingering over actual psychosis.”
Kerr died of dehydration March 12, 2014 after he was held in solitary confinement for 35 days, according to an Associated Press report.
Western District of North Carolina U.S. Attorney's Office Public Information Officer Lia Bantavani said the investigation into Kerr’s death is ongoing.
North Carolina prisoner advocate Forbes worries that not enough has changed since Kerr’s death at ACI.
“After something catastrophic happens, we see the prison systems tighten up their standards, their rules and policies, but time and time again, they become more lax as time goes on, and we are right back to square one,” Forbes said. “Greg Shull is point proven.”
GOOD FRIDAY AND OTHER INCIDENTS
There are three steps to filing a grievance at ACI. First, prisoners submit a grievance to their unit superintendent. Other inmates with knowledge of the incident also can submit an affidavit.
If the inmate does not agree with their superintendent’s grievance response, they can appeal to the administrator of their prison facility. If the inmate does not agree with their administrator’s grievance response, they can appeal to North Carolina Department of Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry.
Prison policy mandates that inmates receive a copy of their grievance as well as all subsequent responses.
Greg Shull provided the Hickory Daily Record with his grievance, an affidavit signed by his cellmate Paul Seelig regarding his grievance, and all three unit responses to his grievance.
The documents illustrate that ACI Superintendent Stephenie Hall and ACI Administrator Susan White’s account of what happened April 7 differs greatly from Greg Shull and Seelig’s account.
Greg Shull was released from the hospital April 6 and sent to ACI after suffering from intestinal bleeding, according to his grievance. Greg Shull said he suffered from severe blood loss and nearly died when taken to the hospital April 2.
Seelig also wrote Greg Shull came back to ACI April 6 after sustaining “severe blood loss.”
Greg Shull said his intestinal bleeding was caused by a perforated, peptic ulcer – the cause of the stomach pain he said he had been complaining about since February 2015.
If peptic ulcers are not treated in a timely manner, they can result in internal bleeding, infection, scar tissue formation, and even death, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Greg Shull said he did not receive medical treatment from ACI staff. A number of medicines (for less than $100) recommended by the Mayo Clinic to treat ulcers include acid-blockers ($25), Proton pump inhibitors ($12), antibiotics ($30), and/or antacids ($6).
In contrast, according to the North Carolina Hospital Association, an average charge for trips to Catawba Valley Medical Center for digestive problems cost more than $15,000 as of 2012.
Neither Hall’s response to Greg Shull’s grievance nor White’s response addresses Greg Shull’s narrative on his first trip to the hospital. However, they do address the second one.
At approximately 5:30 a.m. April 7, Greg Shull experienced stabbing stomach pain, he wrote.
He collapsed while walking to the bathroom and Correctional Officer Daniel Lancaster helped him to the toilet. There, he wrote he “began bleeding profusely from my rectum all in the toilet and all over myself.”
The Hickory Daily Record verified the full names of ACI staff via a public records request for a list of all staff members.
Greg Shull wrote that he lost consciousness and hit his head while on the toilet. After regaining consciousness, Greg Shull asked for help from correctional officers passing by him.
“I’m yelling for [an] officer to help me, to no avail,” Greg Shull wrote. “I was told there was no one here from medical to help me.”
Seelig wrote in his affidavit that staff did not stay with Greg Shull while he was on the floor, even though they knew he was there.
In addition, Greg Shull wrote that a sergeant ignored his pleas for help while on the toilet.
“Sgt. Sigmon came up to me and rudely asked me if I was going to get up or just lay there,” Greg wrote. “I told her I could not get up. She did nothing! I laid in my own blood and waste for over [an] hour.”
Seelig’s affidavit also noted Greg Shull’s interaction with Sgt. Renee Sigmon.
“Sgt. Sigmon came in once, [asked] ‘Are you going to get up,’ left, and did not come back until EMS came and took Mr. [Shull] to the hospital,” Seelig wrote. “It took [the sergeant] 1.5 hours before [they] called the medical staff from across the street.”
The Step One response to Greg Shull’s grievance signed by Hall refuted Greg Shull’s and Seelig’s allegations.
“Sgt. Sigmon had staff check on you several times and you were still on the toilet,” stated the unit’s response signed by Hall. “You told staff you hit your head when you fell. Therefore, they did not move you in case you had hurt your neck.”
White agreed with Hall’s response, and stated that she felt no further action needed to be taken regarding Greg Shull’s grievance in her Step Two response.
None of the three responses state how long Greg Shull was incapacitated.
White, Hall, Sigmon, and Lancaster could not be reached for comment.
Less than a week after signing his affidavit, Seelig was charged with false allegations on staff and transferred to another prison.
Seelig is a non-violent, class H felon – the second lowest level of felon in North Carolina.
According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety Offender Public Information database as of July 2, Seelig is in disciplinary segregation in the Central Prison.
“As soon as an inmate opens their mouth to report any allegations against staff or help another inmate, they are retaliated against by staff,” Forbes said of her past experiences working with prisoners in North Carolina.
When asked about whether Seelig’s infraction was related to his affidavit, Acree said he could not answer because it involved confidential inmate records.
On June 10, Greg Shull’s grievance was formally dismissed by the NCDPS Inmate Grievance Resolution Board, a week after they received it on June 3.
“Staff response indicated that this inmate has not been improperly treated and has received the appropriate level of medical evaluation/attention,” stated the Step Three response. “On this record, this inmate’s allegations are insufficiently supported.”
Greg Shull and Bruce Shull aren’t satisfied with the prison system’s response.
After inmates exhaust the internal grievance process, a 1996 federal law allows inmates to file a lawsuit in federal court regarding medical neglect, Prison Legal News Managing Editor Alex Friedmann said.
“A variety of court cases have demonstrated that a lack of medical care necessary to treat a prisoner's serious medical or mental health needs can constitute ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ under the Eighth Amendment,” Friedmann said.
The Supreme Court established in Bounds v. Smith (1977), a case filed by prisoners incarcerated in North Carolina, that prisoners have a constitutional right to “adequate, effective, and meaningful” access to the courts in cases of unlawful imprisonment and conditions of confinement.
Access to the courts can be provided either through libraries or people trained in law.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety provides inmates access to the courts by contracting with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services (NCPLS), according to Acree.
In 2005, the North Carolina General Assembly made OIDS responsible for providing inmates with their right to access to the courts through overseeing NCPLS.
However, NCPLS hasn’t been able to investigate cases about prison conditions due to budget cuts to OIDS, OIDS Assistant Director Danielle Carman said.
Prior to July 2013, Carman said about one third of cases the organization investigated involved conditions of confinement complaints, such as medical neglect.
Budget cuts in Fiscal Year 2014 crippled NCPLS, cutting its funding from $2.89 million to $2 million or about one third of its funding, Carman said.
“It has impacted NCPLS and the inmate population tremendously because NCPLS is no longer able to do civil conditions of confinement litigation – e.g., medical negligence, assaults by guards, etc.,” Carman further explained in an email.
Greg Shull is one prisoner that felt the impact of the lack of funding.
Bruce Shull called NCPLS twice in mid April. After the second call, Bruce Shull said it was clear that NCPLS were not going to investigate his brother’s case.
“They just said we have 100 counties and we have this many inmates and it’s a slow process, but you can tell it was never going to happen,” Bruce Shull said. “They weren’t going to be able to help because their workload is so heavy.”
Inmate advocate Forbes said other prisoners have felt the impact of not having access to the courts.
“We have noticed more prisoners going to solitary confinement, being written up…, brutality, and of course medical neglect,” Forbes said.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety does not provide inmates with any legal aids, computerized legal services, paralegals, or legal volumes, Acree said. NCPLS is the only way prisoners can access the courts.
Multiple legal experts said this is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“Prisoners need meaningful access to the courts to protect their rights,” Southern Center for Human Rights Attorney Atteeyah Hollie wrote in an email. “Unless [North Carolina] comes up with an alternate way of affording these prisoners meaningful court access, it will continue to run afoul of the Constitution.”
In the long run, cutting OIDS’ budget could cost the state, wrote Professor of Law and Visiting Professor of Government Cornell University Joseph Margulies in an email.
“North Carolina may think they’re saving a few dollars, but it will cost them much more if they are brought under the supervision of a federal court,” Margulies wrote.
Despite the fact that NCDPS contracts with OIDS to give prisoners access to the courts, prison law expert Friedmann said NCDPS is still responsible for giving prisoners access to the courts if OIDS doesn’t.
“[NCDPS is] not meeting their constitutional obligations,” Friedmann said. “They still have their own responsibility to provide minimally, constitutionally adequate access to the courts.”
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NOW?
State legislators are currently deciding the budget for NCDPS and OIDS. Governor Pat McCory signed a bill that would give state legislators until Aug. 14 to vote on the budget.
N.C. District 30 Republican Sen. Shirley Randleman and N.C. Republican Sen. Andy Wells, representing Catawba and Alexander counties, said the Senate budget in its current form increases pay for correctional officers, in hopes to retain quality staff.
“Abuse or neglect of prisoners is intolerable and must be addressed any time it happens,” both senators wrote in regard to the allegations that prisoners are being abused by staff at ACI.
As for Greg Shull, he was transferred out of ACI in June after his health improved. He is scheduled for release from the state prison system March 30, 2016.
“I’m concerned about his safety every day that he is there,” Bruce Shull said.