Corrections officers at the Alexander County jail forced two 16-year-old inmates to go naked for days at a time, sometimes in full view of adults, a lawyer representing them has alleged.
In a yet-to-be-filed lawsuit obtained by the Observer, the lawyer contends that, for three days and nights in May 2011, inmates Austin Saddler and Justin Helton were deprived of their mattresses, their belongings and all of their clothes as punishment for trying to tattoo themselves.
The complaint alleges that Helton faced the same punishment two more times later that year at the jail in Taylorsville, 60 miles northwest of Charlotte.
At the time, the two inmates were awaiting trial for larceny and other charges.
Patrick Flanagan, a Charlotte lawyer who represents the county sheriff’s office, said he has not yet investigated the claims.
But he said he has been in touch with Alexander County Sheriff Chris Bowman, who indicated “he didn’t see any wrongdoing.” Bowman’s office runs the jail.
The sheriff did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting an interview.
Flanagan said that he did not know whether the sheriff’s office had investigated the allegations, but “I’m going to look into them, obviously, as part of the defense of any potential lawsuit.”
Wendy Greene, the Raleigh lawyer representing the teens, wrote in a May 17 letter to an attorney for the sheriff’s office that she hoped to negotiate “an agreement in lieu of proceeding with litigation.”
“We have reached out to them and are awaiting their official response,” Greene told the Observer.
She declined to comment further, saying it was premature for her and her clients to discuss the case.
Sleeping on cold metal
But Greene’s letter and draft complaint allege the following:
Soon after Saddler and Helton were caught tattooing, in violation of jail rules, a jail official ordered them to undress completely and then confiscated their clothes, mattresses and other belongings.
When they entered the hallway for meals and showers, they were forced to do so completely naked, the complaint alleges. It says one officer asked that the inmates’ clothes be returned, but another jail official refused.
Jail officials returned the youths’ undershorts after Saddler’s grandmother informed the county social services department, which had legal custody of the youth. But that Sunday, Saddler attended church services dressed only in his boxers, the complaint states.
The jail was air conditioned and cold. “During the day Plaintiffs sat on cold metal chairs and at night they slept on cold metal slabs,” the draft lawsuit alleges.
One night, Saddler became sick and vomited on the floor. An officer allegedly told him, “You better do something with that,” but the officer refused to give him cleaning supplies.
“Austin was so frightened he ate the vomit to comply,” the complaint states.
Later, officers caught Saddler writing on a wall and allegedly punished him by striking him and shoving him against the wall. He was transferred to the Ashe County jail after complaining to his guardian ad litem.
The jail did not make any educational programs or materials available to the teens, the complaint states.
Saddler and Helton, now 19, have long criminal records, with convictions for crimes including breaking and entering, larceny and common law robbery. They’re now imprisoned at Polk Correctional Institution in Butner.
If true, what reportedly happened to Saddler and Helton is unacceptable, say some advocates for North Carolina inmates. The U.S. Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment, including deliberately degrading discipline.
“Nobody wants to think their tax dollars are going to treat 16-year-olds – even if they committed crimes – like that,” said Jennifer Blue, managing attorney for the Safe and Humane Jails Project, an effort to improve conditions for North Carolina inmates. “It’s a constitutional issue. These are people’s kids.”