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Mecklenburg Jailhouse Blues

Inmate lawsuits allege unprovoked, severe beatings at Jail Central

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Paul Midgett's lawyer didn't elaborate on the fine details of the severe beating Midgett received while incarcerated in the Mecklenburg County Jail in May 2000, but Midgett's criminal file at the courthouse contains several letters from his father, George Midgett that give some idea. After seeing the severity of Paul Midgett's injuries from the beating, George Midgett joined the ranks of other desperate parents who've lobbied the courts and public officials to keep their sons from being transferred back to the Mecklenburg County Jail. George Midgett feared that detention officers at the jail might do his son -- who was a federal prisoner awaiting trial on robbery-related charges -- further harm if he were held there before scheduled court appearances. In a series of memos faxed to his son's attorneys between August and October 2000, George Midgett wrote, "under no circumstances should Paul be held over at the Meck. County Jail because they would probably kill him." In another memo written after it appeared that Midgett would be moved to Charlotte temporarily for a legal proceeding, George Midgett wrote, "This reference to being moved to Charlotte frightens Paul and scares Loretta and me. There is just no way that Paul can be kept, even for a few hours, in either of the two Mecklenburg County Jails. . ."

In their response to the charges made by Midgett in his lawsuit, the attorney representing Pendergraph, Mecklenburg County and the officers Midgett claimed had assaulted him didn't deny that Midgett had been beaten, but argued that "prison officials can't be held liable under for negligent supervision or training of their subordinates" and that the county should be dismissed from the suit "regardless of Plaintiff's allegations since it bears no liability for the alleged misconduct of the sheriff or its deputies."

As they had in several other prisoner-initiated cases against them, Pendergraph's lawyer argued that the sheriff is a state officer rather than a county official and couldn't be sued for constitutional violations because the state and state officials have immunity from such suits.

US District Court Judge Richard Voorhees didn't buy Pendergraph's arguments, and denied both Pendergraph and the county's motion to dismiss the case. The case remains open.

Roger Byrd was a federal prisoner who was transferred to the Mecklenburg County Jail in May 1997 to await re-sentencing. Even though he immediately told prison officials that he had diabetes, which required a special diet and treatment, Byrd says they insisted he didn't have the disease. As Byrd became increasingly ill, he says his pleas for medication to control his glucose level were repeatedly ignored. By the time he called his mother on September 17 to ask her to lobby his jailers for help, he was extremely ill with the symptoms of acute diabetes. Despite her calls to the prison, he received no treatment and, six days later, was taken to Carolinas Medical Center in a near-comatose state and with what he believed to be a temporary loss of vision. Byrd eventually learned that he suffered a permanent loss of vision typical of untreated diabetes that will eventually cause him to become blind, according to the suit. In their response to Byrd's suit, the sheriff's department didn't deny the allegations Byrd made, but said the suit should be dismissed because Byrd waited until 2002 to file the suit and the three-year statute of limitations on suing them had passed.

"(Byrd) knew, even before he was hospitalized on September 23, that he was getting sicker by the day because of the jail's refusal to provide him adequate medical care for his diabetes," the lawyer for the sheriff wrote. "The fact that the loss of vision was not diagnosed as permanent until March of 2000 is of no consequence."

Pendergraph's legal response bears little resemblance to the chronic illness policy directive released by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office in March 1998. According to that policy, those with chronic illnesses, which includes prisoners with diabetes, are supposed to be assessed upon their arrival at the jail. Within 10 days, the inmate is supposed to meet with a physician who has evaluated his tests or lab work to assess his status. After that, their status is supposed to be reviewed "on a continuous basis," or a minimum of every 90 days.

In Byrd's case, US District Court Chief Judge Graham Mullen accepted Pendergraph's argument that the statute of limitations had passed, and dismissed him from the suit.

Willie McKinnon spent two days in the Mecklenburg County Jail in September 2000 after he was charged with misdemeanor assault on a female and communicating threats, charges on which he had not yet been convicted. In his suit, which was written by his attorney, McKinnon describes the same abusive jail policies other inmates have described in at least 10 suits against Pendergraph and his deputies since the mid-1990s. Because, they claim, the jail is kept at a very cold temperature, several inmates have sued the sheriff over the years for what they describe as the jail's policy of "torturing" inmates by forbidding them to use the blanket the prison provides them between the hours of 4am and 9pm.


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