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Inmate who claimed prison leaders maintained violent fiefdom loses court fight

Lawrence Parsons, right, the former prison administrator at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, left the federal courthouse in Charlotte with his lawyers on a lunch break on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. On Thursday, a federal jury ruled that Parsons was not deliberately indifferent to the safety of inmates.
Lawrence Parsons, right, the former prison administrator at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, left the federal courthouse in Charlotte with his lawyers on a lunch break on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. On Thursday, a federal jury ruled that Parsons was not deliberately indifferent to the safety of inmates. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A federal jury on Thursday ruled against a North Carolina prison inmate who contended he was stabbed and permanently disabled at Lanesboro Correctional Institution because the prison’s chief had enabled a “culture of violence.”

Stacey Wynn, who is a serving a life sentence for two murders, was assaulted twice by another inmate — Sadat Sanchez — on Nov. 12, 2011. In the second of the two attacks, Sanchez stabbed Wynn in the chest and struck him with a chair. Wynn received about 50 stitches and suffered shoulder injuries that he says have made it impossible for him to work some prison jobs.

Wynn alleged in his federal lawsuit that he was injured because Lawrence Parsons, Lanesboro’s leader at the time, was “deliberately indifferent” to his safety, in violation of his Constitutional right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

The federal jury did not agree.

Stacey Wynn.jfif
Inmate Stacey Wynn

Attorneys for the state argued that Wynn failed to take advantage of multiple chances to prevent the second attack. He could have told prison officers about the first attack, but didn’t. He could have requested “protective custody,” but didn’t do that either.

“There is one person in this courtroom who is most responsible for the injuries to Mr. Wynn, and that is Mr. Wynn himself,” Assistant Attorney General Alan McInnes told the jury during his closing arguments.

Wynn said he was reluctant to be branded a prison “snitch” — a label that can get inmates hurt.

The ruling in inmate Wynn’s case does not end the state’s legal challenges. Four other North Carolina inmates have filed lawsuits with similar allegations, and their cases are expected to come to trial later this year.

Much of the trial focused on what Parsons did and didn’t do to keep weapons out of the hands of inmates, and to punish and prosecute inmates who attacked others. Wynn’s attorneys contend attackers were rarely referred for criminal prosecution under Parsons’ watch. The state’s attorneys attempted to show that Parsons, who retired in 2016, took many steps to make the prison safer.

Some testimony raised questions about whether Parsons — and another top manager named Jeffery Wall — were serious about keeping contraband out of the prison.

On Tuesday, Wall testified that he kept homemade weapons, known as shanks, in the ceiling of his prison office. Wall, a former unit manager at the prison, said he had at one time kept the shanks in a safe in Parsons’ office but later moved them to his own office. He was not asked to explain why. If such weapons are confiscated after fights, they are supposed to be kept in locked cabinets in a prison evidence room.

Wilburn English, a prison sergeant who previously worked at Lanesboro, recalled a day when Parsons and Wall came to talk with him. English said he had gathered evidence about another prison sergeant who worked for Wall and who he suspected was bringing drugs into the prison. He said he based his suspicions on information from inmate informants and prison surveillance video.

“(Parsons) told me I couldn’t say anything about another sergeant bringing in marijuana,” Wilburn testified. “He said I could face an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) complaint for making false accusations.”

In closing arguments on Wednesday, Scott Holmes, one of Wynn’s attorneys, gave the federal jury his interpretation of those events: “Mr. English was trying to make (Wall’s unit) more safe. And Mr. Parsons and Mr. Wall were not.”

Wynn had alleged that Parsons allowed Wall to maintain a “violent, contraband-driven fiefdom,” a claim that Parsons denied.

Located about 45 miles southeast of Charlotte, Lanesboro will soon be converted to a women’s prison, a major change that state leaders hope will improve safety and security.

An investigation by The Charlotte Observer last year found that state prison policies and management failures allow corruption and violence to thrive.

A video taken inside Lanesboro in 2012 — and obtained by the Observer — shows Wall meeting with gang members just minutes before those inmates, armed with homemade weapons, became involved in a fight that killed inmate Wesley Turner. Hours after the murder, video also shows Wall gesturing to the killer. To investigators and the killer’s lawyers, his meaning seemed clear: Keep your mouth shut.

Wall would not talk with the Observer. But in a court filing, he said he never facilitated attacks.

In a statement issued Thursday morning, N.C. prison director Kenneth Lassiter said that improving safety and security in the prisons remains a priority.

“It is the department leadership’s ongoing commitment to do all we can to keep staff, visitors and inmates safe,” Lassiter said.

Alexander: 704-358-5060; @amesalex
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