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Central Prison inmates go on a hunger strike for better conditions

Incarceration by patrick o'neillLocked in a single cell in Unit One at Central Prison, a person can feel about as far from the outside world as one can get. But recently, more than a dozen men in the 192-bed disciplinary segregation lockup in Raleigh participated in a hunger strike to protest what they called "dire and oppressive conditions." In an 8-page, handwritten letter dated Feb. 6 to Director of Prisons Boyd Bennett, the striking inmates also wrote that conditions in segregation were driving them to the "point of insanity."

"[A]s we have watched, our fellow prisoners are cutting their wrists, swallowing razor blades and batteries ... we must make a stand against this, even at the cost of our own lives," they wrote.

The Independent received a copy of the letter from one inmate's attorney. While the copy did not include names of the signers, the letter's authenticity was confirmed by comparison with a copy received by Bennett.

The letter makes 15 requests, ranging from the need for a law library and contact visits to more serious matters, such as an end to alleged brutality at the hands of prison guards.

"We want an immediate end to police brutality!" they wrote. "We are tired of the savage and barbaric attacks by so-called 'correction' officers. We are tired of the stitches, tired of the broken bones. We are tired of having our teeth knocked out and our faces beaten ... ."

The letter asked that a "meaningful review board" be established to "review every use of force committed by an officer upon any prisoner."

Bennett says he is unaware of any brutality on the part of Central Prison's guards, and is not planning to officially respond to the protesters' complaints.

"I've read the letter," Bennett said. "I didn't see anything specifically that would warrant intervention on my part. They were general complaints. They were broad complaints. The things that I saw had no merit." The striking inmates also asked for "real rehabilitation programs for all prisoners" as well as educational opportunities, daily access to showers and exercise.

According to Central Prison Warden Robey Lee, a dozen inmates initially began the hunger strike on Feb. 5, with "about" three others joining later. Four of the strikers were Death Row inmates, assigned to Unit One for disciplinary reasons. All of the inmates were monitored by prison medical staff, with some being put on IVs. The last striker stopped refusing food Feb. 17.

Prison officials and attorneys for the inmates wouldn't discuss the reasons for the end of the strike, but all participants now face additional disciplinary charges stemming from the strike.

Neither Bennett nor Lee met with the inmates to address their complaints, although Lee said he was making sure that Unit One inmates were getting proper portions of food. One of the complaints was that food portions were too small.

"One thing I am doing, I'm having the food situation monitored closely," Lee said. "I'm going to make sure that they are served appropriate portions, and served according to the menu. There had been one or two instances where the menu might not have been followed."

Lee also said he personally reviews "every use of force" incident, and that he was not aware of any problems of brutality at Central Prison. He said the inmates' complaints were in areas of Department of Corrections policy, that is state level, not local Central Prison policy.

The letter also stated that some men were kept in segregation for indefinite periods, in some cases "between two to five years. ... We want a system devised that determines a minimum and maximum segregation sentence for each infraction instead of indefinite sentences that currently exist."

An inmate who is charged with a violation of prison rules, from a minor infraction to an act of violence, might be assigned to administrative segregation. Inmates say that in some cases, after serving their disciplinary sentences in segregation, they are not returned to the general population.

Lee confirmed that after an inmate is sent to segregation for an infraction, an individual's custody classification may be changed due to that infraction. Time in segregation is reviewed every six months, Lee explained, which can result in the inmate having to spend more than a year on Unit One.

Conditions are Spartan on Unit One. Meals come through a slot in the cell door. Showers are permitted four times a week, and the twice-weekly one-hour exercise periods are in a day room or in an outdoor cage that one defense attorney likened to a dog pen. Privileges, such as access to the canteen, can be limited or denied, as can participation in religious services. Human contact is not allowed for segregated inmates under what is known as "maximum control."

Michael Hamden, director of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, says his office has received "a number of complaints" from Central Prison inmates on death row and in administrative segregation, and his office has assigned a staff person to monitor those complaints.

"We are particularly attentive to any such complaints," Hamden says, adding that most of the points addressed in the inmates' petition do not constitute violations under the law.

"I believe the conditions are stark," Hamden continues. "I believe that life in Central Prison, on Death Row and in administrative segregation, is a miserable existence. But I don't have any indication that it violates the law. The law permits that." But, Hamden stresses, "prison officials cannot be indifferent to the basic necessities of life."

The laws, Hamden says, also give prison officials "broad discretion over their facilities, and a lot of discretion in the way they provide for the basic necessities of life." Unlike the state's other 77 prisons, only Central Prison bans contact visits, an issue the hunger strikers addressed in their petition.

"[D]eprivation of human contact with our sons and daughters, mothers and wives, fathers and brothers, is a violation of our human rights, and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment," they wrote.

They also asked for representation on the prison's grievance resolution board.

"The current grievance system is against us, and almost never resolves a grievance in our favor," they wrote.

Bennett says the grievance board is "somewhat independent from the Department of Corrections," and that "at times we do change our policies and procedures. And at times if there are specific allegations against staff, those things are investigated and we fire staff and take whatever action we need to take to deal with it if we feel like someone has acted inappropriately."

Still, life on Unit One can be so bad that even death row inmates can't handle it, says defense attorney Robert M. Hurley, who represents one of the strikers. "You're hoping just to get back to Death Row," he says.



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