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Federal Court Orders Cameras to Cover Blind Spots at North Carolina Prison

Federal Court Orders Cameras to Cover Blind Spots at North Carolina Prison

by David Reutter

On August 22, 2013, a North Carolina federal district court ordered attorneys representing the state prison system to present a plan to ensure adequate security camera coverage at the Central Prison in Raleigh. The court’s order was aimed at preventing incidents like those alleged in an ongoing lawsuit brought by eight prisoners held in solitary confinement.

The suit claims that guards handcuff and shackle prisoners and remove them from their segregation cells in Unit One to take them to the “desert” – blind spots outside the view of security cameras – to administer severe beatings. In some cases, the beatings result in broken bones and other serious injuries.

For example, one of the plaintiffs, prisoner Jerome Peters, claimed that on December 3, 2012 he was being escorted back to his solitary confinement cell when he was diverted to a “desert” area. Once off camera, a guard hit him in the jaw while another grabbed his leg to pull him to the ground. A third guard then joined in.

While handcuffed behind his back, Peters said he was kicked, stomped and beaten as the guards shackled his feet; he suffered fractures in his face, hands and pelvic area. A nurse initially treated him with Tylenol. Eventually, he was seen in the prison hospital and transferred to an outside medical center.

His injuries were so severe that he spent months in a wheelchair. When he arrived to testify in court in August 2013, Peters hobbled in with the assistance of a walker. The abuse he described was not an isolated incident; according to the lawsuit, other prisoners suffered blunt-force injuries and concussions after being beaten by guards.

“For years, the inmates of Unit One have pursued every avenue available to them to put an end to the violence that is routinely inflicted upon them. They have filed grievances, engaged in letter writing campaigns to public officials, gone on hunger strikes, and exhausted all of the administrative remedies available to them. The violence has not stopped,” wrote Elizabeth G. Simpson, a lawyer with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, in a pre-trial pleading.

Attorneys for the state argued that guards sometime need to use force on the prisoners held in solitary confinement, noting the eight prisoner plaintiffs had received a combined 583 disciplinary infractions. “The inmates housed on Unit One are violent, unpredictable, and exhibit little impulse control, so they are extremely difficult to control,” the state attorneys said.

The lawsuit also alleges former Central Prison administrators Gerald J. Branker and Kenneth Lassiter failed to preserve camera images that might help prove the prisoners’ claims, and that they failed to fully investigate allegations of excessive force. Lassiter was promoted in May 2013 and is now the director over 12 prisons in North Carolina’s central region. Branker had retired in 2011, following news reports of an internal review that found mentally ill prisoners at Central Prison were placed nude in feces-smeared, roach-infested segregation cells.

The federal court ordered the parties to work out a plan to ensure that blind spots at Central Prison receive video camera coverage, and that digital videos are kept long enough to allow investigation of prisoner complaints.

“They’re in your control,” U.S. District Court Judge Terrance Boyle told attorneys for the state. “It’s not like they can send you a postcard or email when a problem arises.”

The district court later denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss, and the lawsuit remains pending a summary judgment motion filed by the state on March 30, 2015. The prisoners are represented by Simpson and other attorneys with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. See: Corbett v. Branker, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 5:13-ct-03201-BO.

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Related legal case

Corbett v. Branker