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Death at North Carolina Lock Up Spotlights Troubled Jail System

Death At North Carolina Lock Up Spotlights Troubled Jail System

by Michael Rigby

The death of Christopher Lee Wood
at North Carolina's Cherokee County jail has served to illuminate a sordid history of prisoner abuse, FBI investigations and lawsuits. It has also resulted in the sheriff and the chief jailer being criminally charged.

Coming just four months after a fire at another North Carolina jail killed eight prisoners, Wood's death has sparked a firestorm of controversy, including calls from legislators for a statewide investigation and a reform of the laws governing the state's county jails.

Death At Cherokee

The Cherokee County jail had a reputation for being tough on prisoners. Sheriff Alan Kilpatrick instituted a number of policies during his four years in office, ostensibly to enhance security. Prisoners wrote letters with crayons checked out to them by guards one color at a time. Visits were reduced to 10 minutes per week; moreover, prisoners had to choose between spending the time with their families or with clergy. When prisoners misbehaved, according to former guards, prisoners and their attorneys, Kilpatrick shut off the water for days, allowing toilets to overflow with human waste.

Kilpatrick says he turned off the water overnight, not for days. He denies prisoners were mistreated. "Yes [the jail] was tough;'- 4' he said. "They weren't put in there for missing Sunday school."

Problems at the jail were more obvious to some. Timothy Rasmussen, former Cherokee County defense attorney, said "I believed someone was going to die, tensions were so high." Unfortunately for the Wood family, his prediction proved horribly accurate.

Christopher Wood's parents had been checking daily with the jail to make sure their son, who was a diabetic, was receiving his insulin. Chief jailer Judy Mason assured them he was. On September 4, 2002, four days after their son was arrested on marijuana charges, they received a call from a prisoner at the jail; Christopher Wood was sick and needed help. The next day Mr. and Mrs. Wood tried desperately to get help for their son. However, when the 911 dispatcher called the jail and informed jailer Judy Mason of the parents' calls, Mason refused to have an ambulance sent. She further instructed the dispatcher to tell the parents they would be arrested for making harrassing phone calls to 911 if they didn't stop calling.

Christopher Wood, meanwhile, was barely conscious, vomiting and begging for help, according to other prisoners and jail records. He had been off his insulin for two days. The next day, a district judge ordered the jail to transfer Wood to the state Department of Corrections for safekeepingbut it was too late. Before Wood could be transferred he slipped into a diabetic coma and died. He was the father of three.

Criminal Charges and a Local


On January 6, 2003, a grand jury indicted Judy Mason on charges of involuntary manslaughter and failing to provide medical care. When District Attorney Charles Hipps announced that Mason had been indicted, a crowd of more than 60 who had been waiting for the grand jury's decision broke into applause. If she is convicted, Mason, 45, could spend 10 months in prison.

The jailers had "many opportunities" to save Mr. Wood's life by administering the life-saving insulin, which had been purchased by the county specifically for him after he was arrested, said Hipps.

Hipps promised a continuing investigation and probably more indictments. "Rather than say I'm sorry, I: am here to say I am going to do something about it," Hipps told Mr. and Mrs. Wood. "I anticipate further charges."

Further investigation may prove difficult, however, as someone at the sheriff's office apparently took notes from the Enron fiasco. All the records from Kilpatrick's term in officecomputer files, letters, memos, and even phone recordsare gone, including those related to-Christopher Wood's death.

"When I came into my office the first day, there was a desk, a file cabinet, a paper shredder and a disassembled computer," said Keith Lovin, the new sheriff.'

County attorney R. Scott Lindsay, who sent a memo to Kilpatrick on November 1, 2002 warning him not to destroy records after receiving anonymous tips, said that if the records were not in the sheriff's office or the jail, "then they have been taken by either Mason or Kilpatrick," or destroyed. Neither Kilpatrick nor Mason would comment on the missing files.

In a highly unusual move, sheriff Kilpatrick was charged with not reporting Wood's death to the state Department of Health and Human Services until 17 days later. It is unusual because sheriff's are not typically charged in these types of incidents. On January 22, 2003, Kilpatrick pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 1 year of unsupervised probation, 24 hours of community service, and $500 in fees and fines.

Kilpatrick will not face further charges as "[t]he investigation failed to show that Kilpatrick had any knowledge of Christopher Lee Wood's medical condition until he was called after Wood had been found dead," said Mr. Hipps. Christopher Wood's parents, however, have initiated a civil lawsuit against both Kilpatrick and Mason.

Past Problems

When tragedies like the death of Christopher Wood occur, rarely are they isolated events. Patterns of prior abuse and prisoner mistreatment typically emerge. Cherokee county jail is no exception.

Like Christopher Wood's parents, Elizabeth Head made repeated calls to Cherokee County jail in 1995, during Jack Thompson's reign as sheriff, requesting help for her son, Ronald Reynolds, who had a history of mental illness. Ms. Head called the jail 5 times from December 21 to January 30, but according to allegations in court records, her requests for help were met with laughter.

In 1993, while awaiting trial on murder charges, Reynolds, 37, had tried to gouge out his eyes with a toothbrush. He then spent two years bouncing back and forth between jail and mental hospitals. Doctors finally stablized him with anti-psychotic medications, but he quit taking the medication in January 1995.

Reynolds' psychosis quickly returned. When he stopped eating and threw away all his belongings, jailers isolated him. According to Reynolds' attorney, Jack Holtzman, on the night of January 31, 1995, other prisoners awoke to the sound of Reynolds' crying, moaning and yelling as he removed his right eye.

Reynolds subsequently sued the Sheriff's Department alleging jailers failed to make twice-hourly cell checks in accordance with state law. The suit was settled in 1999 for $13,000.

In 1998, Sheriff Kilpatrick took office, but conditions at the jail did not improve. According to court records, a state trooper warned attorney Rasmussen in March 2000 that his client, Terry Ownbey, was living in feces and urine. "I saw [Ownbey] in his urine soaked clothes when I went to the jail," said Rasmussen. The attorney had three other prisoners write affidavits describing Ownbey's treatment.

"I know that Terry had urine thrown on [him] and jailers refused to allow him to clean his cell or change his clothes," wrote Roy Brendle. "I know that Terry was kept in a cell without water for at least one week. He got his water from me."

Josh Hampton wrote, "During mid-February, jailers took all things and hygiene items from Terry Ownbey's cell, including toothbrush, paste [and] punish him for yelling and hollering."

"Kilpatrick would tell us, `I'm going to treat you like animals, because that's what you are,'" said Ownbey.

Another incident involved prisoner Mark McClure. In February 2001, McClure shot himself in the right foot and was taken to the hospital where doctors amputated his big toe. As soon as he came out of anesthesia deputies served him. McClure, 34, was wanted for violating his parole on a DWI conviction. While he was being held in jail, he pleaded to be taken to the state prison where he believed he would receive better care and maybe even antibiotics to stave off infection. McClure was subsequently sentenced to 120 days in prison for violating his parole. Prison medical records reveal that his foot was infected on arrival to the prison; doctors at the DOC were forced to remove even more of his foot.

FBI Investigations

In 1999, the FBI investigated claims that a prisoner, identified only as a Hispanic male, was abused while being booked into the jail. According to county records, the man was handcuffed naked for hours after he struggled with jailers. When Kilpatrick was asked about the incident in January 2003, he said the only recollection he had of the incident was that of a Hispanic prisoner being handcuffed in his boxer shorts for "an hour or two."

However, at a June 15, 1999 meeting with county officials, sheriff Kilpatrick "stated that one inmate was stripped down to his underwear and his hands handcuffed because he was throwing feces on other prisoners." The minutes of the meeting further revealed that "[t]his went on for a period of time in excess of eight hours. The Sheriff stated this situation was complicated because the inmate could not speak English."

In 2000, the FBI also inquired about Charles "C.G. Ownby (not related to Terry Ownbey), who was also unlucky enough to experience Cherokee County justice firsthand. Ownby had been in a fight with his neighbor on January 20, 2000. When he called to ask if they had made any headway in the case, relates Ownby, "[t]he sheriff said, `I'm going to come down there and get you for making harassing phone calls.'" Soon after, deputies went to his house, kicked the door in, and arrested him.

"From then on out I was getting beat up and kicked and stomped the whole time,' said Ownby. In jail the beating continued, he said.

Ownby complained of chest pains the next day but jailers ignored him. "They tried to brush it off. But I begged them to take me to the hospital because I was scared," said Ownby. "I thought I was going to die."

The physician that treated Ownby at the hospital, Dr. Stephen B. Zimmer, notified Ownby four months later that the FBI had inquired about the cause of his injuries and that he had informed them that the "findings on examination could be in keeping with traumatic injury...."

Ownby says the FBI interviewed him but he hasn't been able to obtain any information related to the investigation. Ownby says he tried to find a lawyer to take the case but was unsuccessful.

Fire, Deaths At Mitchell Jail

The conditions of confinement are not much better at many other North Carolina jails. On May 3, 2002, 8 prisoners were killed when a fire broke out at the Mitchell County jail. The blaze began when a storeroom wall heater, long missing a temperature control knob, ignited nearby cardboard. The storeroom had no firewall or fireproof door, which could have stopped the fire's spread.

Many of the antiquated jails in North Carolina are potential firetraps lacking modern safety features. Five of the jails in the 17 western counties were built in or before 1940 and only 5 were built later than 1982. Just three of the jails have sprinkler systems.

It seems reasonable that state safety inspections would detect some of these hazardsbut they don't. According to a North Carolina Department of Labor investigation, state and county inspectors overlooked safety violations that may have been key in preventing the Mitchell fire. Properly trained inspectors would have detected the safety violations-that led to the Mitchell fire. Although no charges were filed in association with the fire, the Labor Department did recommended more training for state jail inspectors.

Mitchell County reached a $2 million settlement with the families of the fire victims. More lawsuits are pending. [See the January 2003 issue of PLN for more on the Mitchell fire].

In response to the death of Christopher Wood at the Cherokee County jail, the eight deaths at the Mitchell County jail, and other problems plaguing North Carolina jails, state Sen. Bob Carpenter is calling for a statewide probe of county jails by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Michael Hamden, executive director of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services says that prisoners are not adequately protected by current laws governing jail conditions. "The law grants sheriffs broad discretion in the operation of jail facilities," he said.

"I think it's going to take the strong arm of the law like the FBI to get results," Sen. Carpenter said. "I think we have too many incidents." He also suggested there should be uniform standards governing the state's county jails and that the SBI should be the agency to enforce those standards.

As it stands, state control over county jails is limited. "I can't stop a sheriff in this state from directing his jail staff to cut off water to a cell block or keep food from inmates as punishment," said Bob Lewis, head of the Jail and Detention section of the Division of Facility Services.

State Rep. Wilma Sherill also believes serious reform is needed. "I don't have all the answers, but I think it's time for the Legislature to step up to the plate," she said. "Surely there is something that we as legislators can do to correct this. I think it's time for all of us to get our heads together and act. Are we going to let this happen someplace else?" For the sake of all those incarcerated in North Carolina jails, let's hope not. g

Sources: Asheville Citizen-Times, The News and Observer, The Dallas Morning News

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