Six years ago, a group of prisoners hoping to whittle down their sentences by taking a road crew assignment allegedly found themselves trapped in a cycle of horrifying abuse. According to a 2015 lawsuit filed by 25 current and former inmates from the Sampson County Correctional Facility, guards “initiated” prisoners through tortures involving hot sauce, sexual humiliation, and physical violence. Although complaints have circulated since 2012, no criminal charges have yet been filed. And yet the story continues to resurface as the plaintiffs seek justice.
The lawsuit filed two years ago against the North Carolina Department of Public Safety alleges that prison staff had “entered into an agreement to abuse and humiliate” the plaintiffs. The disturbing punishments described date back as far as four years prior. Plaintiffs describe being forced to consume hot sauce so hot it had a higher Scoville rating than police pepper spray. The same hot sauce was used in a ritual called “taking the sauce,” in which members of the road crew were forced to stick their hands into a plastic bag of hot sauce and then lick it off. They were also forced to rub the hot sauce on their own genitals and anuses in front of other prisoners.
One plaintiff said he lost his sense of taste after “taking the sauce.” Another said he was unable to wear his dentures for weeks afterwards, and several complained of blisters on their skin and mouths after participating. Yet another vomited and passed blood after having to lick hot sauce off the white lines on the road. The officers in charge apparently wore surgical gloves to protect themselves from contact with the sauce.
Other humiliations included officers forcing prisoners to squeeze one another’s genitals until they “said particular racist phrases convincingly enough” and making the plaintiffs dance naked for video cameras and digitally sodomize one another. Two prisoners almost drowned as a result of officers forcing them to chase beer cans into swamps and lakes — one couldn’t swim and had to be rescued by other road crew members.
CBS Charlotte reports that in 2012 six inmates wrote a complaint to the U.S. District Court in Greensboro describing other abuses they had endured, including being made to strip and simulate sex acts, kiss wild snakes, and throw live rabbits into on-coming traffic. There was also an additional component to the abuse, in which prisoners who participated were rewarded with marijuana, cigarettes, and even cell phones—contraband that the prisoners themselves were made to smuggle in to Sampson County Correctional. The guards and officials who participated allegedly profited off the sale off these black market items to the larger prison population.
It took years for the prisoners to successfully call attention to abuse. They tried internal complaints as well as the 2012 letters to the district court. The Charlotte Observer quotes Thomas Patten (the same plaintiff who couldn’t swim), who stated, “We complained to the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, a couple of lieutenants and sergeants, and a couple of captains and they would tell us they know their officers are not doing this.”
This is hardly the only story of systematic abuse within North Carolina’s prison system. The Ashboro Courier-Tribune reported on another lawsuit filed by eight inmates at a Raleigh prison alleging “malicious and sadistic assaults” while they were in solitary confinement. Those lawsuits resulted in state settlements. There are also the 70 state employees facing criminally charged for on-the-job offenses, the Observer found, and the 400 others fired for on-the-job misconduct since 2012, the same year prisoners at Sampson County Correctional first complained to the state.
That’s not counting another type of abuse the Observer reported. 65 North Carolina prison staffers have been fired for crossing ethical boundaries with inmates, mostly of a romantic or sexual nature. One case involved an affair carried out in such plain view that a prison staffer was bringing a standard poodle in for visits with the inmate she was involved with, along with gifts of cologne and takeout.
North Carolina did ultimately investigate the Sampson County case, which the Observer reports resulted in the suspension and resignation of Superintendent Lafayette Hall. Officer Jackson also resigned, and Officer Jones was fired after a fellow guard confirmed some aspects of the prisoner’s allegations. A civil lawsuit is still pending. Three other state and federal investigations found there isn’t sufficient evidence to file criminal charges. After all, six years is a long time for blisters to heal and for hot sauce to wash away. But this is one story that hasn’t seemed to fade so easily.