The North Carolina Division of Prisons say its staff acted appropriately when they pepper-sprayed a mentally ill inmate locked in a tiny cell.
Lawyers for the state filed a response Monday in the case of Jerry C. Williams, an inmate with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and a lengthy criminal record kept in solitary confinement at N.C. Central Prison.
A federal lawsuit filed by North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services claims Williams was repeatedly doused with high-concentration pepper spray during a 2009 standoff that began when the inmate jammed a plastic food tray through a small slot in his cell door.
In its response, the state says its use of force was justified because the tray struck correctional officer Marshal Griffin in the lower leg. The inmate then appeared ready to hurl a cup of liquid the officer believed to contain urine, a threat that Griffin responded to with pepper spray.
Williams' prison record lists more than 140 infractions over the past 10 years, including times when he has thrown cups of his own bodily waste.
"When, in the course of dealing with Williams, Griffin found himself in danger of an imminent assault, he reacted according to policy, which provides that 'pepper spray, if feasible, should be used as the first level of response ... to control or deter violent, threatening or aggressive acting inmates, or to defend the officer or a third party from imminent assault,'" lawyers for the state said in their reply.
The incident sparked a three-hour standoff in which prison officials reported pepper-spraying Williams eight times after he barricaded himself in his cell.
The inmate's lawyers say video of the incident shows more, including an officer using a large "MK21" canister similar in size to a fire extinguisher and designed for dispersing a large unruly crowd, not for use on an individual confined to a small indoor space with limited ventilation.
All of that high-test pepper spray caused Williams "extreme pain," his lawyers said. They also say he was shocked, dragged from his cell, placed in handcuffs and shackles, and then taken to another section of the prison where officers took turns punching and kicking him. The state denies Williams was beaten.
Eventually, a team of officers wearing body armor and wielding batons entered the cell with an electrified shield used to pin an inmate to the wall or floor while delivering a debilitating high-voltage shock. The state contends Williams attempted to assault the officers when they entered the cell by swinging a bar of soap in a sock.
Williams' lawyers also say he was not a threat to anyone while locked in his cell and that the entire incident could have been avoided had Griffin responded to the thrown tray by simply shutting the slot in the door and calling the prison's in-house mental health staff.
They argue that Williams' treatment amounts to a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment and also violates the prison's own rules for dealing with mentally ill inmates.
Medical records show that when Williams was examined by a nurse nearly two hours after he was last pepper-sprayed, he had an abnormally rapid heart rate and low levels of oxygen in his blood - symptoms of overexposure to the chemical irritant. He also had abrasions and three broken fingers.
The case raises more questions about the treatment of inmates in Unit One, a special 192-bed section at Central known as "The Hole" where those who violate prison rules are punished by being held in solitary confinement.
A federal lawsuit filed by Prisoner Legal Services earlier this year on behalf of eight inmates alleges correctional officers used "blind spots" out of view of security cameras to dispense with beatings to handcuffed and shackled inmates, shattering bones and leaving one wheelchair-bound. The prison system denies the allegations, but recently installed new video cameras in the unit to cover the blind spots.