Judge weighing prisoner video requirement

Mar. 21, 2014 @ 08:28 PM

RALEIGH — North Carolina state attorneys asked a federal judge Friday not to require Central Prison staffers to use a hand-held video camera to record how some prisoners subdued by guards are returned to their cells, saying it could be expensive and too burdensome.

The recommendation to use the cameras was among five suggested in January by a court-appointed expert, a former corrections administrator who assessed video security-system upgrades in a prison section where disciplined prisoners are held in solitary confinement.

The expert's recommendations were spurred by a lawsuit filed by prisoners who allege officers systematically carried out beatings in a secluded area of Unit One not covered by surveillance cameras. The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state's prison system, denies any abuse occurred.

The department agreed with the experts on four other recommended changes, including installing additional cameras in Unit One and keeping a written maintenance schedule on the cameras' upkeep, according to court documents.

But State Assistant Attorney General Jodi Harrison told U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle that the recommendation to require the hand-held video cameras at the Raleigh maximum-security prison could cost millions of dollars.

"This is not a simple fix. This is an expensive fix," Harrison said. "We're talking about substantially revising the use of force policy."

Prison officials already added mounted security cameras last spring, court documents show. But Elizabeth Simpson, an attorney with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, said those aren't good enough to protect inmates from guards that seeking retaliation.

Simpson said hand-held cameras already are available to Unit One staff to record "anticipated" incidents of guards using force to subdue a prisoner, so they're already trained to use them. The recommendation would apply to "unanticipated" incidents requiring force.

Boyle didn't immediately rule on the issue. He said he wanted to ensure a "safe, secure and humane" prison.

Simpson presented video surveillance evidence from Unit One dated Dec. 16, 2013, involving a prisoner she identified as Spanola Gordon. She said the footage showed discrepancies with the incident report filed in the case, which said Gordon was doused with pepper spray within his cell.

The report said Gordon was removed from his cell and he refused decontamination. It said he later became "aggressive and non-compliant which twice led to take downs" in front of a holding cell. The incident report didn't describe lacerations to his face for which he received treatment, a court document said.

"We have people who are still receiving serious injuries," Simpson said after Friday's court hearing. "We just want to know what happened."

Gordon was transferred to Maury Correctional Institution last month. He is serving a six-and-a-half year prison term as a habitual felon and for malicious conduct by a prisoner, according to Department of Public Safety records. He has been cited for 59 prisoner infractions since late 2010, the records show.