These are among the homemade weapons — known as shanks — that have been recovered at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, which for years has been one of the state’s most dangerous prisons. John Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
These are among the homemade weapons — known as shanks — that have been recovered at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, which for years has been one of the state’s most dangerous prisons. John Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

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Why did a top NC prison officer hide bloody shanks in his office ceiling?

July 17, 2018 08:17 PM

A former high-ranking administrator accused of fostering violence at one of North Carolina’s most dangerous prisons acknowledged in federal court Tuesday that he kept homemade weapons such as shanks hidden in the ceiling of his prison office.

Testimony from former unit manager Jeffery Wall came during the second day of a civil trial examining whether Wall’s supervisor, the top official at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, ignored serious problems and allowed Wall to maintain a “violent, contraband-driven fiefdom.”

But in his first public comments about the hidden weapons, Wall said Lanesboro’s top administrator at the time — Lawrence Parsons — was unaware that he kept the weapons in his ceiling.

Wall’s testimony was brief and he did not elaborate on the hidden weapons. He would not discuss the lawsuit or his testimony with an Observer reporter.

An investigation by The Charlotte Observer last year found that state prison policies and management failures allow corruption and violence to thrive.

A video taken inside Lanesboro in 2012 — and obtained by the Observer — shows Wall meeting with gang members just minutes before those inmates, armed with homemade weapons, became involved in a fight that killed inmate Wesley Turner. Hours after the murder, video also shows Wall gesturing to the killer. To investigators and the killer’s lawyers, his meaning seemed clear: Keep your mouth shut.

A prison manager makes a gesture outside a nurse's office where the killer is held.

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Later, investigators found bloody weapons hidden in the ceiling of Wall’s old office.

In a court filing, Wall said he never facilitated attacks.

Former Lanesboro prison official Jeffery Wall leaves the federal courthouse in Charlotte on Tuesday.
Special to the Observer

The lawsuit being litigated at Charlotte’s federal courthouse this week was brought by Stacey Wynn, an inmate who suffered serious injuries following two November 2011 assaults at Lanesboro. Wynn, who is serving a life sentence following a 2008 murder conviction, was permanently disabled after one of the attacks, his lawyers say.

Wynn alleges that another inmate stabbed him in the chest with a weapon resembling a filet knife, then threw a chair at him.

Wynn alleges that Parsons was “willfully and deliberately indifferent” to his safety, in violation of his Constitutional right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment. In court documents, Parsons has denied that.

Parsons, now retired, testified Tuesday that during his time at Lanesboro, he took a number of steps to reduce violence and keep weapons out of the hands of inmates.

Three prisoners armed with shanks attack a rival gang member and another inmate, killing one.

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He acknowledged that he had heard complaints about Wall from officers at the prison, but “they had no concrete evidence.”

Wall was eventually fired in 2013, after Parsons had left Lanesboro and after the homemade shanks were found hidden in the ceiling of Wall’s office.

In his testimony Tuesday, Wall said he had at one time kept the shanks in a safe in Parsons’ office but later moved them to his own office. He was not asked to explain why.

How serious Parsons was about keeping contraband out of the prison remains unclear.

In a cell block inside one of the state’s most dangerous prisons, an inmate stabs a rival gang member 13 times. When investigators examine surveillance videos of the murder, they’re troubled by what happens a few hours later.

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Wilburn English, a prison sergeant who previously worked at Lanesboro, recalled a day when Parsons and Wall came to talk with him. English said he had gathered evidence about another prison sergeant who worked for Wall and who he suspected was bringing drugs into the prison. He said he based his suspicions on information from inmate informants and prison surveillance video.

“(Parsons) told me I couldn’t say anything about another sergeant bringing in marijuana,” Wilburn testified. “He said I could face an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) complaint for making false accusations.”

Parsons declined to talk with the Observer about that and other allegations.

Ronald Covington, a former captain at Lanesboro, testified that Wall appeared to be close to a gang-affiliated inmate.

“The inmate was always in his office, and that was kind of unusual,” Covington said.

The inmate who spent time with Wall — Joseph Sanderlin — was involved in at least two attacks at Lanesboro, Wynn’s attorneys say. Both of the attacks involved weapons.

Parsons testified that it was easy for inmates to make weapons, from broom handles, batteries and even toothbrushes. But it was sometimes hard for prison officers to find those shanks, Parsons said.

Inmates often hid contraband in body cavities, Parsons said. And, he said, they would even go so far as to tie dental floss around forbidden items, flush them down the toilet before a cell search and later use the dental floss to retrieve them.

Wynn, who also took the stand Tuesday, testified that some inmates simply walked around prison metal detectors. He said the injuries he suffered in the 2011 attack have made it impossible for him to lift much weight above his head or work some prison jobs.

Attorneys for the state quizzed Wynn why he didn’t take steps that might have allowed him to avoid the attack. For instance, they noted, he failed to tell prison officers after his attacker assaulted him the first time.

Wynn said he did not want to be branded as a prison “ snitch,” a label that can get inmates hurt.

Alexander: 704-358-5060; @amesalex