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$10,000 Settlement in North Carolina Prisoner’s Pepper Spraying

The North Carolina Department of Corrections (NCDOC) paid a prisoner $10,000 to settle a lawsuit claiming guards used excessive force by pepper spraying him.

Lanesboro Correctional Institution prisoner Bill Rayburn had been asking guards to move him away from another prisoner who had been taunting and threatening him. On the morning of January 13, 2009, Rayburn had a panic attack and began pounding on his cell door.

When guards responded a second time, they doused him with pepper spray. They also soaked his cell and bed with the spray. Rayburn said he screamed in pain and was taken by guards to wash off in a shower. Once finished, he was ordered to return to his cell.

Rayburn refused to comply, saying he would not be able to deal with the noxious fumes from the pepper spray that still permeated his cell. As he sat naked on the shower floor, a female guard “sprayed him all over his body, including his genitals,” according to the complaint in his lawsuit. Upon emptying her can of pepper spray, the guard obtained another can and continued spraying him while laughing.

Rayburn was then left on the shower floor; he was unable to turn on the water to clean himself. It was not until the next shift of guards arrived that he was able to wash the chemicals off. State officials denied liability when agreeing to settle the case for $10,000 in June 2010. Rayburn was represented by North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. See: Rayburn v. Wall, U.S.D.C. (W.D. NC), Case No. 3:10-cv-00084-RJC-DSC.

An investigation by the NCDOC found that the guards involved in the incident had violated the department’s use-of-force policy, which allows staff to use pepper spray only when needed to deter “violent, threatening, or aggressive” prisoners or to defend against an assault. When pepper spray is used, prisoners are to be given “an immediate opportunity” to wash off the chemicals. The prison’s administrator was replaced and five guards were disciplined following the NCDOC’s investigation.

In April 2011, Lanesboro Correctional Institution administrator Richard L. Neeley, 52, was charged by the State Bureau of Investigation with obstructing justice, a felony, for allegedly ordering the destruction of a 2009 surveillance video that showed guards fighting with prisoners. According to Stephanie Miller, a former sergeant at Lanesboro, Neeley ordered her to destroy the video footage because he thought it showed excessive force.

“I was instructed not to put the video in the felony file and to destroy it,” she stated, adding that it “was basically a cover-up of the assault.” Miller said she was harassed by supervisors at the prison after she turned the video over to the State Bureau of Investigation, and later resigned.

Sources: Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer

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Related legal case

Rayburn v. Wall