A 65-year-old state prison inmate says he was handcuffed and posed no threat to officers when they assaulted him so badly that he had to be hospitalized for four days.
Precisely how events unfolded is unclear. State prison officials say officers were merely trying to subdue inmate Morlai Sesay after he’d pushed a sergeant – a claim he and two other inmates dispute.
But there’s no question that the Feb. 21 incident left Sesay with serious injuries. Hospital records obtained by the Observer show he suffered fractures to bones in his face and skull.
They rolled me over on my back while I was handcuffed and kicked me in the groin area.
Morlai Sesay, describing a Feb. 21 incident in which he said prison offices beat him without cause.
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Sesay – a refugee from the West African nation of Sierra Leone who is serving time for breaking and entering – was hurt at Lumberton Correctional Institution. The medium security prison south of Fayetteville has faced other accusations of officers using unjustified force against inmates.
Eight days after Sesay was injured, officers at Lumberton were accused of brutally beating another handcuffed inmate who fellow prisoners say was presenting no threat.
Sesay’s ordeal began shortly before 2 a.m., after prison officers woke him up and asked him to take a drug test.
State prison officials say Sesay refused and became combative. They contend he later shoved the female sergeant into a wall, resulting in injuries to her face.
“Staff controlled and restrained him,” state prison spokesman Keith Acree wrote in response to questions from the Observer.
Officials from other prisons, brought in by the state Department of Public Safety to investigate, found “no inappropriate use of force,” Acree wrote.
“Sesay’s only injury happened when he fell to the floor,” Acree wrote. “Sesay was not struck or kicked by officers.”
Acree said state officials have not decided whether to take action against any of the prison’s employees.
An investigation ... found there was no inappropriate use of force. Sesay’s only injury happened when he fell to the floor.
N.C. prison spokesman Keith Acree
Sesay provides a much different version of events. So do two fellow inmates who say they witnessed part of the incident.
In letters written to an Observer reporter with the the help of an interpreter, Sesay said he was unwilling to go with an officer that night because he was in bed, feeling sick. His English is poor, he said, so he didn’t understand why several officers were taking him away.
“If it was for a urinalysis, I did not know that,” he wrote.
Officers handcuffed Sesay, escorted him out of the dorm and then, he said, “tripped me (like a leg sweep) for no reason.”
“I busted my head and blood was dripping all down my face,” he wrote.
Then, he said, six officers kicked him in the groin and hit him with batons.
“In the scuffle the female sergeant’s face banged up against the wall, but it was not because I pushed her against the wall,” Sesay wrote.
Spitting up blood
After Sesay was injured, officers placed him in a holding cell. He waited about seven hours before prison officials summoned an ambulance to take him to the hospital.
He was eventually treated at three hospitals – Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton, UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill for more tests and Central Prison’s medical center in Raleigh for recovery.
With Sesay’s consent, the Observer obtained records of his treatment at the first two hospitals.
He was taken to the Lumberton hospital after he complained of spitting up blood, the hospital documents state. At 9:27 a.m., he arrived by ambulance, his right eye swollen shut.
The records from Southeastern and UNC show Sesay suffered one fracture to a bone behind the forehead – an injury that, according to an article in a medical trade journal, typically requires “enormous” force.
He had a second fracture on a bone in his eye socket.
He also suffered a fracture to the base of his skull, the records from the Lumberton hospital also show.
The sound of batons
Two other inmates who say they witnessed part of the encounter believe officers had no justification for using force on Sesay.
After Sesay failed to submit to a drug test, a sergeant instructed one correctional officer “to just write Mr. Sesay up for a refusal and to leave it alone,” inmate Omeako Brisbon wrote. But soon afterward, Brisbon said, he saw officers pull Sesay from bed and slam him face first onto the floor.
Immediately afterward, Brisbon said, the officers took Sesay to a hallway where there were no surveillance cameras. Brisbon wrote that he could no longer see what was going on, but he could hear Sesay’s screams and the “unmistakeable sound of (officers’) batons sliding out and … smashing on some one’s back, head or knees.”
Under state prison policy, officers are prohibited from striking an inmate who has abandoned his resistance or who is “effectively restrained.”
Acree, the prison spokesman, said officers escorted Sesay out of the sleeping area because he had become loud, and they didn’t want to wake other inmates. Sesay and officers who were escorting him lost balance and fell, Acree said.
The incident that landed Sesay in the hospital was brought to the Observer’s attention by the mother of another inmate, who contacted NC CURE, a criminal justice reform group.
Elizabeth Forbes, NC CURE’s director, said that when inmates like Sesay disobey an order from prison staff, officers are supposed to handcuff them and take them to a segregated cell.
“You don’t take them around the corner and beat them,” Forbes said. “I don’t have to be a medical expert to say that when he received these types of injuries, he was beaten.”
Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, recommended that state prison officials put in place a system for tracking and investigating uses of force – and then making those records available to the public.
“People who are incarcerated do not lose their right to physical safety,” Brook said.
State records suggest Sesay has caused little trouble since entering prison in January. He has been written up for two infractions, both for disobeying orders. Many other prisoners have dozens of infractions.
Sesay is scheduled to be released from prison Aug. 27.