Inmate testifies in prison abuse suit

He says staff assaulted him at facility where Iko died

U.S. was probing other allegations

October 19, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

A state prison inmate testified in federal court in Baltimore yesterday that correctional officers at a Western Maryland prison abused him and arranged for other inmates to assault him over a two-year period because he frequently filed complaints about his treatment.

The inmate, Norman R. Willis, said he complained about the alleged abuse at the Western Correctional Institution to the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently confirmed it had been investigating similar allegations at the prison before another inmate died after a violent confrontation with officers April 30.

In describing one alleged assault, Willis said officers leaned him over a railing while he was handcuffed and later squeezed him between a door and the wall. He said he pleaded for a supervisor to intervene.

"I said, `Lieutenant Riggleman, they're assaulting me," Willis told jurors. "Help me, man. ...You gonna help me?"

Willis said the lieutenant, Tommy Riggleman, responded with an obscenity and told him to be quiet.

The testimony came on the first day of trial in a federal civil lawsuit that casts additional scrutiny on the conduct of correctional officers at Western Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison near Cumberland in Allegany County.

In addition to the Justice Department inquiry, the FBI is investigating the death of Ifeanyi A. Iko, whom correctional officers subdued with pepper spray and then fitted with a mesh spit mask. They found him motionless in a cell hours later, according to the autopsy report, inmates' accounts and other sources. A grand jury and an internal investigation did not result in charges against prison staff.

Willis, who is serving a sentence for robbery, is now confined at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. He is seeking $9.9 million in punitive and compensatory damages. The officers have denied that they mistreated Willis.

The trial offers a rare opportunity for an inmate's allegations of abuse from officers to be presented to a jury and the public. Such cases hardly ever go to trial, either because inmates' allegations are dismissed by courts or, in rarer cases, a settlement is reached.

Yesterday morning, 10 correctional officers and prison staffers -- nine men and one woman -- filed into the courtroom to begin their defense in front of U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett. Those staffers, some of whom no longer work at Western Correctional Institution, are: Leah Youngblood, Robert Huff, Floyd Farris, James Shreve, Steven Roach, Brian Clise, David Swanger, Gary Knight, Tommy Riggleman and Steven Shaffer. Because it is a civil trial, they will not face criminal penalties.

Tamal Banton, one of Willis' attorneys, said in his opening statement to jurors that Willis lived in an atmosphere of abuse at the hands of officers -- a violation of the Constitution's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment." The alleged incidents took place between 2001 and last year, court records show.

"When he complained, that led to more abuses," Banton said. Banton said Willis was once an ally of the officers, who had directed him to assault other inmates in the past.

David Kennedy, an assistant attorney general defending the prison staffers, countered by telling jurors in his opening statement that Willis "concocted an elaborate story to pass his time in prison ... [and] he is the hero of his own story."

Kennedy called Willis' allegations "groundless" and part of a scheme to get the officers disciplined and moved from their jobs in the segregation housing unit where Willis was held in protective custody. Willis was assaulted by other inmates, but not "at the direction of officers," Kennedy said.

Clarence Hawkins, a psychology associate at the prison who counsels inmates and used to visit Willis once a week, testified that he was told on one occasion that Willis didn't want to see him.

Hawkins said Youngblood told him that Willis "didn't want to see me. ... She didn't refuse [to allow Hawkins to visit with him]. She just told me he didn't want to see me."

Hawkins testified that he insisted that he see Willis. When Willis was brought to the interview room, Hawkins noticed that he had bruises and swelling on his face, he said. Willis also told him his back was injured, and that he had been "jumped" by several officers. Hawkins was uncertain about the date of the encounter.

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