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Mecklenburg Jailhouse Blues

Inmate lawsuits allege unprovoked, severe beatings at Jail Central

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In legal documents filed by Pendergraph and his detention officers, they deny the majority of Cole's story, including all the parts in which he claimed they did bodily harm to him. In their response, Pendergraph and the officers argue that they can't be sued by Cole because, among other reasons, as government officials, they have immunity against lawsuits like Cole's.

The Cole case is still ongoing. A judge ordered a mediated settlement in January, but the Pendergraph team is holding out for a jury trial.

Robert Foster, according to the lawsuit filed by his attorney, was awaiting trial on various charges including kidnapping and possession of a firearm by a felon in November 2001 when a fight broke out in another nearby cell. Because inmates in his cell were kicking the door and asking what was going on, Foster claims that detention officer Sean Spencer Stewman buzzed him from his plexiglass observation booth to ask which inmates were kicking the door. "You're sitting in the booth, you've got a better view than I do," Foster told him.

Detention officers came into the cell and took away Foster's mattress, a common form of punishment in the Mecklenburg County Jail. Foster, who felt he was unfairly being punished, requested that Stewman give him a grievance form. According to the lawsuit, Foster claims Stewman put on Nike gloves and replied, "I'll give you a grievance form." Foster says that an officer by the last name of Tolman handcuffed him and then stood by as Stewman violently beat and kicked him while he lay incapacitated on the floor. When it was over, Foster lay on the floor in a pool of his own blood, his mouth split open "from an area just below the side of his nose to underneath his chin on the opposite side." He bled from the eyes, mouth and ears due to the beating and severe blows to the back of his head.

An officer later wheeled Foster to the medical unit in a wheelchair where the inside of his mouth, the outside of his lips and his chin were sutured.

Because Stewman wrote him up for allegedly assaulting a prison staff member and other disciplinary problems after the alleged beating, Foster was given 100 days in the Administrative Detention Unit (ADU), where he says he was forbidden to make or receive phone calls or have visitors except his attorney, whom he wasn't permitted to call. Because of this, he was unable to seek outside medical help for his injuries by contacting his family or attorney except via mail.

According to the jail's policy on confining inmates to administrative detention, inmates can have visitation and telephone access unless those privileges are restricted as part of a disciplinary action.

As luck would have it, though, two days after the beating, Foster was due in Lincoln County for a pending traffic case, so Lincoln County deputies arrived at the jail to transport Foster to the Lincoln County Jail.

Because of his physical injuries from the beating, Lincoln County officials took Foster directly to the jail's medical ward. According to the suit, medical records there indicate that Foster had sutures both inside and outside his mouth and that two of his teeth were knocked out.

Foster's parents got involved after a nurse from the Lincoln County Jail called his mother, Carletta Foster, and told her Foster had been assaulted in the Mecklenburg County Jail. His father, Arnold Foster, pleaded with a Lincoln County judge to hold Foster in Lincoln County, but the judge couldn't oblige him because of pending cases in Mecklenburg. Foster's case in Lincoln County was continued because, given the condition of his mouth, he couldn't speak well.

Foster's parents didn't give up. Requests made by both parents to high-ranking officials within the Mecklenburg sheriff's office for information about their son's condition, and for an investigation, resulted in promises of returned phone calls that never came. A letter from Carletta Foster to Sheriff Pendergraph, requesting that he investigate the beating, was answered by Commander Bruce Treadaway. Appropriate action had been taken, Treadaway wrote in his November 27 reply, but due to the North Carolina Privacy Act, we are limited in what we can disclose." The privacy act bars public perusal of government employee personnel records.

Because it was recently filed, Pendergraph has not yet responded to Foster's suit.


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