Printed from the Charlotte Observer -
Posted: Friday, Sep. 28, 2012

Pepper spraying leads to prison shakeup

By Ames Alexander
Published in: News
  • Three corrections officers were injured during a disturbance at Lanesboro Correctional Institution last month.

    On the night of Dec. 21, corrections officers at the Anson County prison pepper sprayed one inmate who began throwing punches at them, according to N.C. Department of Correction spokesman Keith Acree.

    Then, Acree said, about 40 other inmates gathered and began acting like they were preparing for a fight.

    Some inmates threw chairs, but things eventually calmed down. "I think that's a credit to the way the staff handled it," Acree said.

    Two officers suffered minor hand injuries, Acree said. A third experienced back strain. No inmates were hurt in the disturbance, Acree said.

    Inmates had been angry about being locked down following a fight between two prisoners the previous day, the spokesman said. Ames Alexander

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    State officials have replaced top administrators at an Anson County prison - and have disciplined six other prison employees - following Observer reports about an inmate who was repeatedly pepper sprayed by corrections officers after requesting medical help.

    Inmate Bill Rayburn said officers at Lanesboro Correctional Institution pepper sprayed him four times last year, twice while he was naked. Then, Rayburn said, the officers refused to let him wash off the burning chemical or get prompt treatment for his injuries.

    An investigation by the N.C. Department of Correction found that employees violated the agency's use-of-force policies.

    The incident led Rick Jackson, the prison's 53-year-old former administrator, to retire, correction department spokesman Keith Acree said. Jackson, a 30-year-veteran of the department, did not return phone calls.

    Kevin King, who had worked as assistant superintendent at Lanesboro, about 50 miles southeast of Charlotte, has been reassigned to a new prison.

    Richard Neely, formerly the superintendent at Charlotte Correctional Center, has been named Lanesboro's new administrator.

    In a letter to the Observer, Rayburn said the pepper spray left him with extensive scars on his genitals. He said he intends to file a federal lawsuit.

    Rayburn has said he pounded on his cell door to get medical help after suffering a panic attack early on the morning of Jan. 13, 2009. The second time corrections officers responded, he said, they doused him with pepper spray, a liquid that contains chemicals found in hot peppers and causes intense pain. They also soaked his bed with the spray, he said.

    Rayburn said he screamed in pain, and was taken to the shower to wash off. Guards ordered him to return to his cell, but he refused, saying he wouldn't be able to stand the pepper spray's noxious fumes.

    He alleged a female guard then emptied one can of pepper spray, "raking it up and down my naked body." Then the guard asked for another can and began spraying again, he contended.

    It was almost an hour, he said, before guards let him wash off the spray. He made repeated requests to get medical attention for skin burns on his genitals, he said, but wasn't allowed to see a nurse until many hours later.

    Rayburn, who is serving time as an habitual felon, has since been transferred to a new prison.

    King declined to talk about what happened to Rayburn, but said he considered his own move to Southern Correctional Institution in Montgomery County a lateral transfer.

    "I've got a new chapter in my life. And I'm moving on...," he said. "I've been treated fairly, so I can't complain."

    The investigation into the pepper spraying incident prompted correction officials to issue warnings to three prison employees and negative entries in the performance files of three others.

    Acree said confidentiality rules don't allow him to name the employees who were disciplined, or to detail the nature of their violations. But the department has policies designed to ensure that inmates aren't sprayed unnecessarily - and that those sprayed get prompt medical attention afterward.

    Another former Lanesboro corrections officer, meanwhile, has run into trouble of a different kind. Officer Rickey Hutchings faces felony drug charges after a routine search found he was carrying a half pound of marijuana as he entered the prison Dec. 31, Acree said. Hutchings resigned from his job the same day.

    The Anson County Sheriff's office has charged Hutchings, 33, with possessing a controlled substance in prison and possession with intent to sell and deliver marijuana.

    Acree said he doesn't know precisely how many state corrections officers are charged with drug violations, but estimated that it happens dozens of times each year. In most cases, he said, the officers have attempted to deliver the drugs to inmates.

    "These are employees with difficult jobs and low pay," Acree said. "It's easy to fall prey to something like that." Staff Researcher Maria David contributed.

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