by Ronald Young
An investigation by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) revealed that a blind prisoner at the Orient Correctional Institution in Pickaway County was subjected to three months of continuous isolation in a strip cell.
Willie Thomas, a 67 yearold prisoner suffering from advanced glaucoma and diabetes, was placed in an isolation cell on October 5, 2000, after an altercation with Orient prison guard Vicky Wilder. Thomas allegedly ripped Wilder's shirt and scratched her in several places after being ordered to move out of her line of sight during the running of a pill line.
The prison Rules Infraction Board found Thomas guilty of assaulting a prison guard and sent him to isolation for an undetermined amount of time. However, four hours later, guards acting on the orders of Max Unit Supervisor Lt. Patricia Rice and Major David Larsen placed Thomas in a strip cell, removing his mattress and all of his clothing except his underwear. Thomas stayed there for three months with only a steel slab to sleep on. To further exacerbate the situation, the cell Thomas was placed in had a broken window covered only with a piece of flimsy plastic sheeting which allowed frigid winter air to enter the cell. During the winter months when temperatures dipped below freezing, sympathetic guards who observed Thomas shivering uncontrollably sneaked coveralls and extra blankets to him.
Thomas was removed from the strip cell on January 5, 2001, after Warden Beightler noted during his rounds of Max 3 Unit that Thomas had no mattress in his cell and very little property. He was then moved to a regular isolation cell.
According to departmental policy, strip cells are not intended for punishment. Prisoners are placed in strip cells when they begin to use items to harm themselves or others. "At no time during his segregation period ... did inmate Thomas cause any problems or abuse any cell privileges," investigators wrote. Thomas, who has been in prison since 1987 because of a felonious assault conviction in Cuyahoga County, behaved like a model prisoner, guards told investigators.
Yet Thomas remained seemingly invisible to staff members who made hundreds of routine visits to the cellblock, including two previous visits by Warden Beightier and Deputy Warden Forrest. A nurse visited Thomas' cell daily to administer insulin injections for his diabetes. "I have never heard of anyone kept in this situation for three months," said Rich Arnold, director of Prison Reform Advocacy Center in Cincinnati. "I believe truly here they crossed the line and not by just a step or two."
Investigators learned that Lt. Rice, who has a history of imposing severe punishments on prisoners, removed a mattress that someone had slipped Thomas. They also learned Major Larsen was very upset over Thomas' alleged assault of Wilder and that Larsen vindictively intended for Thomas to remain in a strip cell until he "rode out," meaning until he was moved to another prison or released in 2003. The report concluded that Thomas' treatment "can be construed as punitive."
Warden Beightler was given a written reprimand and remains as the warden at Orient. Deputy Warden Forrest was demoted to administrative assistant and reassigned to another prison. Major Larsen and Lt. Rice were demoted to lieutenant and correctional officer respectively, and also reassigned to different prisons.
The investigative report also touched on questionable treatment of other prisoners at the mediumsecurity Orient prison. "It's appalling. It's unacceptable behavior," prisons director Reginald A. Wilkinson said. "This isn't the end. The discipline is the beginning." Wilkinson also said that he will send a top prisons official to Orient to warn staff members that they are responsible for reporting unfair and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Wilkinson further stated that fears of the Personnel Board of Review overturning dismissals was his reason for the seemingly lax punishment received by the four. "This is still a severe punishment," he said.
Sources: The Columbus Dispatch ;The Plain Dealer ;Investigation Report.
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