Inmates: Officers at Lanesboro helped gang members wage attacks

CHARLOTTE, NC (Ames Alexander/The Charlotte Observ - Five former inmates at Lanesboro Correctional Institution have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that officers at the Anson County prison repeatedly helped gang-affiliated inmates get weapons and wage attacks.

Some officers went so far as to open locked doors to allow attacks on inmates, the lawsuit contends.

The suit also maintains that supervisors at Lanesboro failed to take action when victims asked to be separated from their attackers or transferred to other prisons. Those inmates were attacked again after their requests were refused.

It's the latest in a string of troubling allegations about Lanesboro. Located in Polkton, about 45 miles east of Charlotte, the high-security prison has repeatedly drawn scrutiny after violence, inmate deaths and claims of improper conduct by corrections officers.

Earlier this year, the N.C. Department of Public Safety asked the FBI to assist in a wide-ranging investigation into gang activity and other problems at the prison.

And last December, the Observer reported that the SBI was conducting a probe into accusations of official misconduct.

The plaintiffs in the latest complaint – inmates Stacey Wynn, Orlando Harshaw, Tavieolis Hunt, Sean Smith and Benjamin White – say they were violently assaulted by fellow prisoners wielding contraband weapons.

They're seeking monetary damages, along with changes to ensure the safety of current inmates at Lanesboro. The inmates are doing time in different prisons now. In their suit, filed Nov. 7, they are asking for a court order prohibiting the state from transferring them back to Lanesboro or housing them in the same facility with their attackers.

The suit was filed against the current and previous administrators at Lanesboro, various officers at the prison and Frank Perry, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety said the agency has not yet received the lawsuit and cannot discuss it.

Letting violence reign?

Among the suit's allegations:

• On April 2012, two corrections officers at Lanesboro allowed an attack on White by opening a door to let five inmates from another housing area into his unit. The attackers cut his face with a weapon resembling a razor. Among those who allegedly watched the attack: unit manager Jeffrey Wall. The suit alleges that Wall knew the attack was going to happen and made it possible by "providing access to weapons and/or access for the inmate attackers to the unauthorized area."

Earlier this year, an SBI agent and a prison captain searched Wall's office and retrievedenvelopes containing homemade weapons, according to a search warrant affidavit. Wall could not be reached for comment Monday. Earlier this year, he told an Observer reporter that he had been the subject of an investigation but had been dismissed from the prison for other reasons.

• In March 2012, another corrections officer allegedly opened a cell door to let two gang members attack Hunt. The gang members chased Hunt, overpowered him and stabbed him multiple times with a weapon resembling an ice pick.

The following month, after hearing that "a hit" had been placed on him, Hunt asked to be transferred to another prison. But prison officials rejected his request and sent him back to the regular population. Days later, Hunt was attacked again by other gang members with contraband weapons.

• After filing a grievance contending that corrections officers gave preferential treatment to members of the UBN gang, Harshaw was called into Wall's office in March 2012. Wall then threatened Harshaw by telling him that he was exposing himself to physical harm and retaliation by complaining about corrections officers, the suit maintains.

Later that night, another inmate stabbed Harshaw in the ear with a homemade knife and kicked him repeatedly with steel-toed boots. He was hospitalized with serious injuries.

Attorneys for the five inmates contend that what happened to their clients violates the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Anita Earls, one of the attorneys, said it's bad enough when corrections officers are indifferent to violence inside prisons.

"It's a step further when there's evidence that they are creating conditions for violence," said Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

'Unlawful control'

Said Charlotte lawyer Luke Largess, another plaintiff's attorney: "I don't think anybody believes the gangs should be running the prisons.

"… People are put in prisons because of unlawful conduct," Largess said. "If they're subject to unlawful control while they're there, it's something that needs to be addressed."

Lanesboro has been the subject of many unflattering headlines since 2009, when an inmate alleged that he was repeatedly pepper-sprayed by corrections officers after requesting medical help. The state has changed the prison's leadership several times since then.

In September 2012, the stabbing death of inmate Wesley Turner spurred an SBI investigation and led to charges against three former inmates.

Later that year, an inmate filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Lanesboro corrections officers cracked his skull with a baton and then destroyed a surveillance video that showed the assault.

Starting in November 2013, more than 800 inmates at the prison were put on lockdown for several months after an attack injured a corrections officer. Subsequent searches at the prison found numerous cellphones, improvised weapons and marijuana.