West Virginia Record

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Black inmate says he's been subjected to racial discrimination, assault at Mount Olive Correctional Complex

Federal Court

By Kyla Asbury | Jan 10, 2020


CHARLESTON – A black inmate is suing the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) over allegations he was assaulted by a white supremacist and correctional officers did not intervene.

Lermon Russell filed the lawsuit against DCR, Commissioners Lolita Butcher and Betsy Jividen; Warden/Superintendents David Ballard and Donald Ames; Correctional Officers Hayhurst, John Doe 1, Toney, Schrader, Smith, Bell and Benton; and Nurses Jane Doe 1 and John Doe 1 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia in Jan. 2.

Russell, 44, is housed at Mount Olive Correctional Complex (MOCC). He alleges he was frequently subjected to the use of racial slurs and racist remarks by both his fellow inmates and the correctional officers.

The plaintiff alleges he was the only black resident assigned to Pod 4, which is also populated with members of the MOCC Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, which included at least four inmates: Steven Branscome, Gregory Burdette, James Zell and Jacob Samples.

"While incarcerated in Pod 4, plaintiff was involved in an argument with inmate Burdette," the complaint states. "During this argument, inmate Burdette frequently hurled racial epithets towards the plaintiff."

Branscome, who identified himself as the leader of the prison gang, also threatened Russell and claimed he had personally killed another inmate not long before, according to the suit.

The plaintiff alleges later, Branscome told him he wanted to end any disagreements between them, but that did not prove to be sincere.

One evening, Hayhurst and an unidentified correctional officer asked Russell if he wanted to shower and he answered that he wanted to, the plaintiff alleges. He was strip-searched, handcuffed behind his back and leg irons were placed around his ankles and he was escorted to the shower, according to the suit.

Russell claims Hayhurst looked inside the shower and said someone was hiding in it, then he and the unidentified correctional officer stepped back, leaving a clear path for Samples to attack Russell, who was still restrained.

Russell claims he heard the correctional officers say "kill that monkey" and other racial remarks and Samples repeatedly stabbed him with a sharp foreign object and attempted to gouge his eye out.

It wasn't until Samples tired and voluntarily ended the attack that the correctional officers decided to intervene, according to the suit. At that point, the officers began spraying oleoresin capiscum (OC) gas toward Samples and Russell and close range.

"These correctional officers had no legitimate reason to spray the plaintiff, as he laid on the floor seriously injured from the attack and helpless while still in handcuffs and leg irons," the complaint states.

Russell alleges he lost consciousness and was only awoken when he was kicked in the side by Hayhurst. He was then forcefully led by Hayhurst and the unidentified officer to a remote area in the unit to be evaluated by Nurse Jane Doe I, where Toney also joined them.

The plaintiff alleges he told the nurse he felt light-headed and had severe pain in the lower right side where he had been stabbed and severe pain in his eye where Samples had attempted to gouge it out, but the nurse told him he was in shock and did not provide any substantive medical care, according to the suit.

Russell alleges he desperately pleaded for medical attention and was told to shut up by Toney. He was never given the option to see a doctor and was, instead, led back to his cell, where he was forced to stay for more than an hour before he was finally taken to the shower to rinse off the hot, burning OC gas from his body.

The plaintiff alleges he was never given the option to see a doctor over the days and weeks that followed, despite requests to do so. He suffered severe pain and complications and still suffers from the permanent effects of his injuries, according to the suit.

"Plaintiff submitted grievances regarding inmate Samples' attack, and in part, requested that he be transferred from Pod 4 because he feared for his safety and that he would be attacked yet against by members of the Aryan Brotherhood," the complaint states. "However, plaintiff's grievances were ignored and he remained incarcerated in Pod 4 for an extended period of time."

Russell claims it was later discovered that Smith had falsely informed members of the prison gang that he was a "rat" and a "child molester," which effectuated the attack.

Russell claims about a year after the attack, he spoke to Samples, who told him that the correctional officers had knowledge of his plan to attack Russell.

The plaintiff also noted in the complaint that in March, he woke up to Bell serving breakfast on the floor and opened the bean hole to Russell's cell and threw his breakfast into the floor. Several days later, he, again, through the plaintiff's breakfast on the floor and asked if he wanted coffee or juice.

When Russell said he did not want either, Bell threw a pitcher of hot coffee through the bean hole and caused Russell to sustain burns to his stomach and groin areas, according to the suit.

Russell claims he placed his breakfast tray in the bean hole when Bell and Benton came back to retrieve it and when he did, Benton flipped the tray in the air to make it appear that the plaintiff had thrown his tray at Benton and Bell.

Benton and Bell then rushed into Russell's cell and began spraying him with phantom gas, causing severe burning to his body, according to the suit. They then shacked him by his hands and feel and claimed to be escorting him to the medical unit, but they falsely proclaimed that Russell was resisting and, instead, threw him into the floor head-first and began punching and kicking him while he was fully restrained.

Russell claims he was taken to a room, where Nurse John Doe did not provide any substantive treatment and told him he would be OK. 

In the suit, Russell also alleges that in December, a photo was released depicting more than 30 correctional officers employed by DCR giving a Nazi salute, which Russell claims the salute was encouraged by DCR employee Karrie Byrd.

The suit alleges that the photo had to be taken multiple times because, at first, 10 cadets refused to perform the salute before Byrd ordered them to do so.

The plaintiff claims he continues to experience prevalent and unrestrained racial harassment from fellow inmates and guards on a daily basis.

Russell is seeking compensatory and punitive damages with pre- and post-judgment interest. He is represented by Sean W. Cook of Warner Law Offices in Charleston.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia case number 2:19-cv-00918

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