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25 inmates told the same disturbing story: Officers turned rural road crew into torture.

How NC prison officers fuel corruption and abuse

A Charlotte Observer investigation found that a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside North Carolina prisons – and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it.
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A Charlotte Observer investigation found that a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside North Carolina prisons – and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it.

Twenty-five prisoners told a lawyer the same disturbing story: Two armed correctional officers poured hot sauce into sandwich bags and forced inmates to stick their hands inside and lick the sauce from their fingers.

“Taking the sauce,” the officers allegedly called it.

It was not a mild Texas Pete-type sauce, but an “exotic hot” variety sold over the internet and stronger than police pepper spray. Inmates claimed it was so toxic that it blistered their skin and mouths. They said the officers wore surgical gloves.

What began as a perverse initiation rite a few years ago for prisoners on a road crew in rural Sampson County grew into systematic and sadistic torture and humiliation over two years, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the inmates.

“We have good information that supervisors knew full well what was going on, witnessed it with their own eyes and – more egregiously – ignored complaints that came from members of the road crew,” attorney Christian Dysart said.

The lawsuit also claims the two officers forced inmates to smuggle contraband into the prison. The inmates allege correctional officers made thousands of dollars a week off the sale of cellphones, cigarettes and marijuana.

I did some bad things in my past. I paid for that. … But that didn’t give them the right to do this to me.

Thomas Patten, former inmate at Sampson Correctional Institution.

The lawsuit details numerous sordid allegations: Inmates told to line up according to skin color, from “lightest to darkest.” Inmates forced to kiss snakes and throw rabbits in front of oncoming traffic. Inmates forced to hide cellphones, cigarettes and illegal drugs inside their anal cavities – known as “suitcasing.” The officers supplied surgical gloves and Vaseline, the lawsuit said, to make it easier to insert the contraband and smuggle it into the prison.

Did authorities know?

Working on the road crew was considered a plum assignment at Sampson Correctional, which houses 450 medium- and minimum-custody inmates in Clinton in Eastern North Carolina. Prisoners were deployed in groups of eight to pick up litter off the sides of roads. It allowed them to get outside prison grounds and earn time toward an earlier release.

But inmates said their days on the road crew turned hellish in 2011 and 2012.

Cedric Williams said officers forced him to rub hot sauce on his testicles and made him lick sauce off the white line on the road.

Jeremy Cline said they made him pull his pants down and dance naked on the prison bus while an officer filmed him.

Thomas Patten, who can’t swim, said he was ordered into a swamp to retrieve a beer can – and survived near-drowning only with the help of other inmates.

“I did some bad things in my past. I paid for that,” Patten said. “… But that didn’t give them the right to do this to me.”

Attorneys believe authorities at the prison knew what was going on.

The lawsuit contends that Sampson’s assistant superintendent once came on the bus, saw the hot sauce and asked officers, “if this is what they used.”

“We complained to the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, a couple of lieutenants and sergeants, and a couple of captains and they would tell us they know their officers are not doing this,” Patten said in an interview at his home outside Fayetteville. He was released from prison in 2015 after serving seven years for discharging a firearm into occupied property and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

The lawsuit said one inmate’s girlfriend and another’s wife complained to the N.C. Department of Public Safety in Raleigh about the abuse but nothing happened. According to the lawsuit, one of the officers frequently told inmates that they were powerless to report the abuse, allegedly taunting, “Who would they believe?”

‘Go through hell’

His first day on the road crew, in April 2012, Patten said he was told “to take the sauce.”

“You either do it or you go through hell,” said Patten, who is now 30.

If inmates refused to do what the officers ordered, they said, the officers sometimes withheld water, gloves and vests while the inmates worked in the sun.

But what the inmates feared most was that the officers would kick them off the road crew, jeopardizing their early release from prison.

If they complied with the demands, they said, they were rewarded with cigarettes, alcohol and access to cellphones.

The lawsuit claims that officers Anthony Jackson and David Jones pitted inmates against each other, forcing them to exact abusive and vulgar punishments. Philip Jarmon said that when he refused to stick his finger in another inmate’s rectum, Jackson ordered other inmates to attack him.

In another sadistic encounter, three inmates said officer Jackson forced them to hold down Patten and grab his testicles until he yelled, “Jones is my master.”

One inmate was ordered to do it a second time and he refused, the lawsuit says. In retaliation, Patten said, he was forced to jump on that inmate and “bite him like a dog.” The bite, Patten said, left a permanent scar on the man’s back.

Patten said the officers seemed to take a perverse pleasure in such abuse.

‘I was burnt’

Gary Parker, an habitual felon who worked on the road crew with Patten, said he “passed blood” after being forced to ingest the sauce. But Parker, who is now out of prison and lives in Asheville, said the incident that drove him to seek outside help occurred during lunch break one day in 2012 when he fell asleep on the bus.

He said he woke up when another inmate grabbed him and held him down. “And then I feel somebody else squeezing me. They rubbed hot sauce on my private parts. I was burnt.”

Fed up and angry, Parker and five other inmates sent hand-written complaints to the NAACP, the ACLU, prison advocacy groups and the U.S. District Court in Greensboro.

“To whom it may concern,” one letter began. “I am writing you in regards to concerns myself and other inmates have about racial, sexual and demorallizing (sic) acts that are being forced upon us by the correctional staff.”

A federal magistrate read that letter and decided it raised “very serious allegations of civil rights violations.” As a result, state prison officials investigated.

Superintendent Lafayette Hall was placed on paid leave and eventually resigned. Officer Jackson also resigned. Officer Jones was fired. In Jones’ dismissal letter, a co-worker confirmed that inmates tasted hot sauce.

A corrections spokesman wouldn’t provide details about the resignations. Jones’ dismissal letter cited several reasons for his firing, including forcing inmates on the road crew to ingest hot sauce and allowing them to use tobacco products.

Jones, Jackson and Hall could not be reached for comment, despite phone calls and certified letters. In answers that Jones submitted in response to the lawsuit, he denied being abusive. “If something was going on, then why did I not here (sic) of one single complaint,” he wrote. “... I did not force any inmate to do anything.”

Jackson never answered the lawsuit, and the clerk of court entered a judgment of default against him.

In an answer filed on his behalf by the Attorney General’s office, Hall denied any knowledge of the alleged abuse.

Jeff Marks, an assistant superintendent at the time, said in an email to the Observer that “an inmate or two” told him about the allegations. He said inmates and staff know that he “would never tolerate such actions.” He said he launched an internal investigation. In an answer filed by the Attorney General’s office on his behalf, Marks denied all the allegations.

The civil lawsuit is still pending.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh, SBI and FBI also investigated, but no criminal charges were filed.

District Attorney Ernie Lee in Clinton said in a statement to the Observer that there was insufficient evidence to prove any crime beyond a reasonable doubt relating to the inappropriate use of hot sauce and to allegations that officers provided inmates with tobacco and allowed them to use phones. Lee cited “discrepancies and inconsistencies in the various inmate interviews.”

Profiting from contraband

Inmates claimed that in addition to hiding contraband in their anal cavities, they also were given bricks of tobacco taped to the bottom of coolers to carry back with them into Sampson Correctional.

The lawsuit claims that prison employees sometimes intentionally overlooked the contraband. “That says to me that everybody knows what’s going on,” said Dysart, the attorney.

Once inside, the inmates said, they sold the contraband. The profits – up to several thousands of dollars each week – went to various officers, the lawsuit alleged. In exchange, the inmates said, they were allowed to keep cellphones.

Dysart faulted the superintendent and other supervisors who, he said, “knew or condoned or looked the other way.”

“Even if folks out there think the hot sauce is funny – that inmates get what they deserve – I would like to think that no one will think that what these folks went through is acceptable,” Dysart said. “My clients were helpless.”

Researcher Maria David contributed.

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