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Mentally Ill NC Prisoners Injured in Separate Incidents

Timothy E. Helms remains paralyzed from the neck down following a confrontation with guards after he lit a fire in his cell at North Carolina’s Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville. The next day, on August 4, 2008, Helms arrived at Catawba Valley Medical Center in the back of a squad car, suffering from what Dr. Jon Giometti described as extreme blunt force injuries.

“The patient has [welt] markings consistent with [being] struck by a Billy club across his upper extremities. Across his trunk, he has contusions on the chest wall as also on the back consistent with multiple blows from a Billy club,” Dr. Giometti wrote.

A CT scan revealed hemorrhaging in Helms’ brain stem and bleeding in both temporal lobes, as well as a broken nose and fractured skull. Helms said in an interview that guards had beat him and slammed his head into a wall while he was handcuffed and shackled. He also said he was restrained with a collar and leash, like a dog. Staff at the Alexander facility had been ordered to discontinue the use of nylon leashes to control prisoners in 2006.

“They tried to break me,” said Helms, his voice now slurred. “They couldn’t break me.” He claimed that guards had shoved a battery in his anus; according to medical records, batteries were found in his rectum and removed by hospital staff.

The North Carolina Department of Corrections (NCDOC) asked the State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) to investigate the circumstances surrounding Helms’ injuries. Six months later, in March 2009, the SBI began its investigation. The following month they reached a conclusion.

On April 29, 2009, district attorney Sarah Kirkman stated in an email, “After discussing the case with agents from the SBI and reviewing the report, which included witness statements, medical records and video footage, I have determined that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute any crime in the matter.” In short, the SBI could not determine how Helms was injured.

However, the Charlotte News & Observer reported that during Helms’ incarceration he had spent almost 1,500 days, including the last year, in solitary confinement. Not only did this violate NCDOC policy, which disallows solitary confinement for more than 60 consecutive days, it also called into question who the witnesses might be since the incident occurred in the segregation unit, and who else but prison guards could have caused such extensive injuries.

According to the SBI, surveillance video showed Helms being removed from his smoke-filled cell by guards with no billy clubs. He was walking and able to speak. Prison officials initially refused to release the video, which did not record the entire incident – including after guards took Helms to another cell that was not monitored by video cameras.

Dr. Giometti later back-pedaled from his original statements, saying that Helms’ broken nose had occurred before August 3, 2008 and that his comments regarding Helms having been beaten were based solely on Helms’ own assertions.

Helms, who has an IQ of 79, is accused of setting fire to his cell and becoming combative when guards tried to extract him and extinguish the blaze. During his 14 years in prison he had amassed 125 disciplinary cases and cut himself repeatedly.

Now largely paralyzed, Helms is incontinent and unable to walk or feed himself. In February 2009, North Carolina’s Disability Rights group requested that he be released to a medical facility better able to care for his needs. Dr. Paula Smith, the NCDOC’s medical director, recommended that Helms be released, stating he no longer poses a public threat.
“His condition is so debilitating that he is highly unlikely to be considered a significant public safety risk,” Smith wrote.

NCDOC Secretary Alvin Keller, Jr. denied the request. Helms remains in prison, serving three life sentences for a 1994 DUI accident that left three people dead. He has regained some use of his limbs through physical therapy, and faces criminal charges for setting the fire in his cell.

On May 16, 2009, guards responded to a disturbance in the hospital ward at Central Prison in Raleigh, where Helms had been transferred, and found Helms, now confined to a wheelchair, banging on his cell door. He was sprayed with pepper foam. One guard later resigned as a result of that incident.

“This agency’s job is to protect the public safety and the safety of inmates and employees in our facilities,” said Keller, in response to the May pepper spraying. “I will not tolerate anyone who operates outside of established policies and procedures and puts that safety at risk.” There was no explanation from Keller as to why the pepper spraying was outside established policy while the serious injuries that Helms had received earlier, which resulted in paralysis, did not warrant similar concerns.

Another mentally ill North Carolina prisoner, Jamal Delvon Gurley, 29, was involved in an altercation with guards at Central Prison on May 5, 2009. Gurley, who was awaiting trial on two murder charges, was beaten with batons after he allegedly tried to attack prison staff through a slot in his cell door using a toothbrush made into a weapon.
Following a violent melee when he was subdued by guards, Gurley complained that his arm hurt. A prison nurse decided he was not injured, but X-rays later revealed he had a broken arm. An NCDOC spokesman said guards had acted appropriately.

“He is the most mentally ill person I have ever seen, and I have represented a lot of seriously mentally ill people” stated Gurley’s attorney, Paul Herzog. Gurley had been found not mentally competent to stand trial; he was held at Central Prison on safekeeper status because he was deemed too dangerous to house at a state mental hospital.

Sources: Charlotte News & Observer, Wilmington Journal

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