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North Carolina Jail Staff Accused Of Beating And Abusing Mentally Ill Veteran

A civil rights lawsuit claims officers pepper sprayed him, stripped him naked, and then surrounded him and beat him to death.

An autopsy chart shows bruising and injury
An autopsy report shows the extent of the man’s injuries.Courtesy of Matthew Sullivan

When 54-year-old Army veteran Jerry Parker was admitted to the Wayne County Detention Center in Goldsboro, North Carolina, for breaking a window on his neighbor’s truck in May 2017, he told officers that “God told me to.” During and after his arrest, he was talking quickly and incoherently, signs that he was in the midst of a psychiatric emergency.

Instead of conducting a mental health screening or offering him treatment, detention officers allegedly pepper sprayed him, stripped him naked, and left him alone in a cell. Later, when they brought him to a shower, they surrounded him and beat him, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court last week. After that, the lawsuit claims, they hogtied him and shocked him with a stun gun. By the time he was brought to a hospital later the same night, he had been suffocated and had cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead a day after his arrest.

“It’s something that was completely preventable,” said Matthew Sullivan, an attorney representing Parker’s 74-year-old mother, Margaret Jean Kelly. “They didn’t do what they should have done to keep this from happening.”

The lawsuit alleges that Wayne County detention officers, under the direction of Sheriff Lawrence M. Pierce Jr., ignored Parker’s psychiatric issues. Instead, the officers responded to his anger by repeatedly pepper spraying him, kicking him, stomping on him, punching him, and shocking him.

At one point when Parker’s mental state worsened and he grew upset, they decided to “hog-tie” him on his stomach by pulling his arms and legs behind his back and applying handcuffs, leg shackles, and a hobble restraint.

“This man was beaten pretty significantly,” Sullivan said. “Mr. Parker never regained consciousness.”

Sullivan said his office obtained video that showed the extent of the extreme abuse but is barred from releasing the footage at this stage. In photos of Parker’s body at the hospital obtained by The Appeal, he had serious bruising and bleeding across his head. The autopsy report attributed his death to cardiac arrest and traumatic brain injury caused by “blunt force trauma, physical restraint, pepper spray use, and conducted electrical weapon application.”

This man was beaten pretty significantly. Mr. Parker never regained consciousness.

Matthew Sullivan civil rights attorney

The lawsuit alleges that despite the prevalence of mental health issues in North Carolina jails, the Wayne County Detention Center had no mental health resources at the time of Parker’s arrest.

The psychiatric episode Parker experienced during and after his arrest fit a pattern of behavior that he typically treated with medication. Parker frequently had manic episodes where he would have frenetic energy and would not sleep for periods of time. He was also on medications for bipolar disorder and other physical ailments.

“Despite Mr. Parker’s serious medical needs, the detention officers misperceived him as a disruptive inmate or an intoxicated inmate beyond reasonable comprehension levels,” the complaint says.

A representative for the detention center declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

The complaint also names Southern Health Partners, the for-profit corporation that provides  medical and mental health services inside the Wayne County jail, one of more than 200 county and city correctional facilities it contracts with in 15 states. The corporation has been named in other lawsuits over inadequate treatment in jails and wrongful deaths, including a lawsuit filed last week in Putnam County, Tennessee, where it is being accused of “deliberate indifference to medical needs” and the jail is accused of using excessive force.

Parker is not the only person to die recently while being held at the Wayne County Detention Center, a facility designed to hold roughly 200 people. In February, 42-year-old Thomas Jason Hall was found dead in his cell where he was awaiting trial. According to a local news report, no foul play is suspected but the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is investigating.

Last year, 44 people died in North Carolina jails—more than any other year since the state began tracking jail deaths in 1997, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. Though a portion could be due to better reporting of deaths, experts also attributed the problem to an increased number of detainees with mental health and drug addiction issues.

Nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, though many jails are poorly equipped to provide mental health treatment and instead respond to any erratic behavior with violence. In Virginia, for example, officers in the Fairfax County jail shackled 37-year-old Natasha McKenna, wrestled her, shocked her with a stun gun, and attempted to put her in a restraint chair. In response to the outcry over her brutal beating, which was caught on video, the county started a program to provide treatment to arrestees with mental illness who would otherwise be detained in a jail.

Sullivan and his co-counsel, Carlos Mahoney, said that if Wayne County Detention Center had adequate mental health services, Parker’s mother could have celebrated Mother’s Day last weekend with her son. Instead, the day was especially hard for her as she still mourns his absence.

“She relied heavily upon Jerry,” Sullivan said. “Whenever she needed something, Jerry was the one who provided it for her. He was kind of her go-to person to do that, and that’s what she was anticipating he was going to do for the remainder of her life.”