“I lock in the hole now the staff say I die at Alexander” Correctional Institution (ACI), wrote mentally ill North Carolina prisoner Timothy Helms on June 20, 2008.
Fifteen days later, guards had beaten him so severely that he still had billy club impressions on his upper chest and back 30 hours later. The beating caused hemorrhaging inside his brain stem and both temporal lobes, leaving Helms a quadriplegic, unable to sit up or feed himself, incontinent and on oxygen.
Of course, prison officials deny beating Helms, but have been “unable” to “conclusively determine what might have caused his injuries.” Department of Corrections (DOC) Spokesman Keith Acree suggested only that “Tim became ill and was hospitalized.” Months later, Acree wrote “there is no evidence to support any claim that Tim was beaten by officers while handcuffed.”
After he was hit by a truck when he was 10 years old, Tim suffered multiple, severe psychiatric disorders, became developmentally disabled and had an IQ of just 79. He was a child in a man’s body according to his brother. He ended up in prison when he killed three teenage boys in a drunk driving collision on May 1, 1994.
Most of Tim’s prison time was served in psychiatric units or segregation. Diagnosed with at least six major mental disorders, including intermittent explosive anger disorder, Tim amassed 125 disciplinary violations in 14 years, resulting in over 1,459 days in segregation.
While DOC policy limits segregation sanctions to 60 days, Tim was confined for 571 consecutive days over three years. He repeatedly cut himself with a razor and beat his head against a wall, according to DOC records. He smeared himself with feces and told guards he had been eating his own excrement. Staff repeatedly took his mattress, clothing and other property.
The only mental health counseling he received was monthly cell-front visits with a prison psychologist, conducted through a small slot in the cell door. Even though he was locked in a cell, prison officials also handcuffed and shackled Tim.
Tim repeatedly told a psychologist that guards were abusing him. He pleaded to be released from isolation, or given a metal bar to barricade his cell door from inside so the guards couldn’t get to him.
Prison officials claim that on August 3, 2008, Tim set his bedding on fire. Afterwards, DOC Spokesman Acree reported that Tim “appeared to have suffered only some minor scrapes” in the blaze, but by the next day he “became ill and was hospitalized.” Emergency room records tell a starkly different story.
On August 4, 2008 – 24-30 hours after the incident – guards finally drove Tim to a local hospital emergency room. “The story I got is that sometime yesterday, the patient lit a fire in his cell and officers went in to try to put the fire out,” wrote Dr. Jon Giometti in Tim’s intake report. “Patient resisted … and they had to subdue him using sticks, which included beating him on his body … face and head….”
Giometti found “whelp markings” across Tim’s upper extremities, consistent with being struck with a club. “Across his trunk, he has contusions on the chest wall and also on the back, consistent with multiple blows from a billy club,” Giometti found.
A CT scan revealed hemorrhaging inside Tim’s brain stem and bleeding in both temporal lobes, the part of the brain controlling speech, vision, and long-term memory. He also suffered a broken nose, skull fracture and “obvious rib fractures.” After surgery, Tim remained a quadriplegic, unable to sit up or feed himself. Months after the beating, he could speak only in slurred words, whispered so softly that they were barely discernible.
Tim was returned to segregation, charged with two felonies stemming from the fire, but nobody has been charged with his beating. An internal investigation failed to “conclusively determine what might have caused his injuries,” and no personnel actions were taken. To his credit, in September 2008, then-DOC Secretary Theodis Beck asked Attorney General Roy Cooper to have the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) conduct an investigation, but nothing happened.
On February 24, 2009, a Charlotte News and Observer (N&O) reporter contacted a DOC attorney, seeking information about Helms. New DOC Secretary, and former military judge, Alvin Keller, Jr., responded, claiming that the SBI was not able to launch its inquiry because of “other investigative work.” That inquiry finally began in March 2009 and DOC gave investigators all records pertaining to Tim’s injuries, including security camera footage from the day of the fire, according to Keller.
Tim’s family did not learn of the fire, alleged beating, surgery or his paralysis until an N&O reporter contacted Tim’s brother, Mike, in February 2009. Mike immediately contacted prison officials. Over 100 emails were sent to DOC officials and Governor Bev Purdue. Later, Mike finally received a single one-sentence email reply from DOC’s public affairs office. “He is at Central Prison where there have been no problems and no use of force, especially as described in your inquiry,” said the unsigned email.
Mike continued to call and write, prompting a February 2009 email from Acree, claiming that Tim’s injuries were caused by the fire but declining to say more, citing medical confidentiality. Prison officials initially refused to let Mike visit Tim because he was in segregation and because of the fire. Then he was denied because Tim had not completed a form to put Mike on his approved visiting list. Never mind that Tim’s paralysis prevents him from writing, or even holding a pen. DOC also refused a reporter’s request to visit Tim and denied him access to the records and tapes that had been given to SBI. Citing the SBI investigation and Tim’s medical privacy, DOC refused to comment further about his injuries or confinement before “becoming ill.”
Fortunately, before the fire, the Disability Rights North Carolina legal advocacy group had been investigating Tim’s treatment in prison. Group representatives were permitted to visit Tim in the prison hospital. As a result of their advocacy, on March 30, 2009, Tim was removed from segregation status for the first time since September 2007. They reported that Tim finally began receiving physical therapy in April 2009 – eight months after the beating. The group said it was also negotiating with prison officials to allow Mike to visit his brother.
The group is investigating precisely what happened to Tim, according to executive director Vicki Smith. It has also petitioned DOC for Tim’s release through a program that allows discharge of medically infirm prisoners. Tim has been eligible for parole since 2004 but in December 2008 he was denied release as he lay in a hospital bed, unable to care for himself. The parole board refused to say why.
“While Mr. Helms has had a difficult life, he has accepted responsibility for his actions,” said Smith. “It is now time for the Department of Corrections to accept their responsibility.” Sadly, however, prison officials refuse to do so. They are satisfied that Alexander director Keith Whitener is doing a good job. “We think he runs a very tight ship,” said Acree. So what if a prisoner “becomes ill” from billy club impressions every now and then.
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