State lawmakers said they were shocked at the findings of a five-part investigative series by The Charlotte Observer into North Carolina’s prison system -- as well they should be.
The series found a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence, sometimes abetted by correctional officers. (It should be noted that the vast majority of correctional officers are fine people doing a difficult job for little pay.)
This type of scandal is a very old problem in North Carolina, which for many years had a reputation as a state with a top-notch university system and a backward prison system.
During part of the 20th century, North Carolina’s prison’s system could have been the setting for the classic movie, “Cool Hand Luke,” with powerful road gang bosses administering cruel and arbitrary justice.
Most of the state’s inmates were assigned to road gangs – with murderers and misdemeanants from ages 17 to 70, working together under gun-toting guards with orders to shoot them if they tried to escape. There was no thought given to rehabilitation.
Occasionally, abuses would come to public attention, as chronicled by Susan Thomas, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who researched the prison system of the early 20th century.
Such was the case in 1935 involving two 19-year-olds – one serving four months for being drunk and disorderly and another 12 months for larceny at a Mecklenburg County prison camp. They were handcuffed to their cell bars in solitary confinement because they insisted on warming themselves by the fire one January morning before continuing to work as ordered and allegedly cursed a guard who insisted they obey.
When they exited solitary confinement 10 to 12 days later they were unable to walk. Their swollen feet were frozen and showing signs of gangrene. Their arms had to be shackled to the bars and their feet to the cement floor, and the coal fire in the cell stove had been allowed to burn out each day after three hours. Eventually, their feet were amputated.
Gov. J.C.B. Ehringhaus called for an investigation. But the five prison employees charged were all acquitted by a jury. The case drew headlines across the country: “Negroes Tell of Tortures as Prisoners,” said a Washington Post headline.
Prison lashings would become an issue from time to time with various governors saying they wanted to outlaw the whip. One of the best-known incidents occurred at the Woodville Prison Camp in Perquimans County in 1935. After breaking up a prison strike, 13 ring leaders were each administered 10 to 25 lashes, drawing blood from each convict, according to Thomas.
A legislative Committee for Penal Investigations was formed in 1935 to investigate abuses in the prison system. Among other things, it investigated tips from inmates that there was a secret burial place in a densely wooded area of Watauga County where at least six convicts had been buried who had died from their punishment. Committee members spent a day digging in likely locations but were unable to locate the grave sites.
The prison system became news again in 1949.
That was when three civil rights activists were each given 30-day sentences by an Orange County judge for arriving in Chapel Hill on a Trailways bus in racially mixed seating. They were testing a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said segregation in interstate transportation was unconstitutional.
One of the three to be assigned to a black road gang was Bayard Rustin, a Pennsylvania native who later become one of the chief strategists of the civil rights movement.
“You’re the one who thinks he’s smart,” Rustin was told by a local prison supervisor in Roxboro. “You ain’t in Yankeeland now.”
After serving his time, Rustin went to Chapel Hill where he delivered a lecture on his experience – detailing the squalid conditions in the prison camp, the inmates being beaten by guards, of one inmate being forced to dance after shots were fired at his feet, and of a particularly gruesome punishment where inmates were handcuffed, spreadeagled and standing, to their cell bars for days.
At the request of the professors, Rustin prepared a report for Gov. W. Kerr Scott titled: “A Report on Twenty-Two Days on The Chain Gang at Roxboro.” The report was published in serialized form by The New York Post and by the Baltimore Afro-American.
Scott did not act on it until a more politically palatable case arose, involving a white convict named Clarence Lett, who was serving 18 months on a Richmond County road gang for fornication and adultery.
Lett’s mistake was to break the rule against talking while doing road work. When a beer truck passed on a hot summer day, Lett had said: “I would like to have me a case of beer.”
As punishment, Lett was handcuffed, spread-eagled, to the bars of his cell. For, how long was in dispute -- Lett said 70 hours, while the state’s lawyers said it was 52 hours, the most permitted under state regulations.
The prosecution of the local prison superintendent was the first case heard by North Carolina’s first female Superior Court judge, Susie Sharp, who called the practice “medieval.” “I can not conceive how one man could do this to another man,” she said in ruling against the prison system.
The case was appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court where Justice A.A. Seawell called the practice “repugnant.” Seawell wrote: “Fifty or sixty hours of such treatment in the manner described by the State’s evidence might well raise the question whether the Creator has fashioned the human frame to withstand serious consequences to bone and sinew, not to mention that the central nervous complex at the receiving end of pain and misery.”
Although nobody used the word, the state prison system was essentially using torture.
The trial gave Scott the political cover to modernize North Carolina’s prison discipline code, to hire an outside political consultant to study the prison department, and to eventually (under Gov. Luther Hodges) to move the prison out from under control of the highway department and make it a separate department.
Rob Christensen has covered politics for The News & Observer of Raleigh for nearly four decades, and is also the author of The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.