Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lawsuit: Sex offenders singled out - Inmates say they're targets in jail


Two inmates are suing prison officials for housing them in a cell block known inside the walls as the "Gladiator Pod," where they claim sex offenders are singled out for harsh treatment.One of the men admits he's a sex offender; the other says he's been misclassified as one.

But both claim in separate lawsuits that they've been targeted for abuse by inmates and officers.Tony Ellison, 44, of Exeter and Harvey Pratt, 40, of Massachusetts were assaulted shortly after being moved to the cell block, according to lawsuits pending in federal court.

Ellison said he suffered a 3-inch cut to his forehead in September 2006 from another inmate. Pratt said his beating by two inmates in March 2002 left him with a broken nose, broken ribs and a cut above his eye.In their lawsuits, both men describe the "Gladiator Pod," known officially as the C-pod in the Hancock Building, as home to younger, more combative inmates who are especially intolerant of sex offenders.

Ellison said sex offenders who stay in C-pod because they don't ask for protective custody are beaten or have their belongings stolen. In an interview at the prison last week, Ellison said after he was beaten, he buzzed prison staff for help for seven minutes before someone delivering mail noticed he was bleeding from the head and assisted him."It's a young kid pod," Ellison said. "They all want to be gangsters, and they have no respect.

Each pod has its own mentality, and C-pod is among the worst."Prison spokesman Jeff Lyons said he could not comment on the pending lawsuits or the men's characterization of C-pod. He said only that all inmates are given housing assignments based on their behavior, custody level and program requirements and that the prison takes seriously its obligation to keep inmates safe.Ellison landed in the C-pod after declining to participate in a classification hearing where prison officials assess an inmate's behavior to determine housing and programming requirements.

Ellison says he thought the hearing was optional and opted not to go. Before being relocated to C-pod, Ellison had spent more than four years in another housing unit without trouble, he said. He liked where he was living, had had the same cellmate for three years and had a job that allowed him to work double shifts. He wanted to stay, he said.There was no doubt that Ellison was a sex offender when he came to prison in August 2001.

He had pleaded guilty to nine counts of sexually assaulting three relatives, ages 10 and younger, in Rockingham County Superior Court and received a 30-to 60-year prison sentence. He said he will take the sexual offender treatment program when he nears his parole date and becomes eligible.His lawsuit, which was filed this month and includes many other grievances, accuses prison officials of failing to provide security and retaliating against him by housing him in the C-pod, knowing his offense would put him at risk there.

He said he has been labeled something worse than only a sexual offender: a sexual predator.He claims prison officials have also discriminated against him because he molested children. Ellison claims that when he complained to a unit manager about his beating, the manager told Ellison the assault was his own fault "because of what he came to prison for."A federal judge has given Ellison, who is seeking $1 million, until next month to pay a $12.50 filing fee to avoid having his claims dismissed.

Prison officials have not yet responded to Ellison's lawsuit ,because it was filed recently.Classification disputePratt went to C-pod, he claims, after a prison official unfairly classified him as a sex offender when he arrived at the prison in 2001. His case is more complicated because he was not convicted of being a sex offender.

Pratt is serving a 2- to 6-year prison sentence for a charge of "interfering with custody."

According to court records, he met a 14-year-old girl on the internet and invited her to come to his Quincy, Mass., apartment. He was 33 at the time and denied any sexual or inappropriate interest in the girl. He said he was trying to help her escape a difficult home situation, according to prison records.The victim, however, told the police that Pratt had kissed her and discussed the possibility of sex, according to prison records.

At Pratt's sentencing, Judge Harold Perkins required Pratt to undergo sexual offender treatment program in prison before becoming eligible for parole. And in 2003, parole officials denied Pratt parole because he had not done sex offender treatment.Pratt fought that treatment requirement, and, for reasons that were not explained in available court records, Perkins agreed in 2004 to drop the treatment requirement.

But Pratt said he unfairly remains labeled a sex offender by prison officials and is being required to undergo sex offender treatment before he can be released.Pratt filed his lawsuit in October 2005 and is seeking about $300,000 for numerous claims, including sleep deprivation, denial of due process, unfair disciplinary process and labeling him a sex offender.

A federal judge dismissed some of the claims as beyond the statute of limitations but allowed others, including Pratt's complaints about the sexual offender label.Judge James Muirhead wrote in a court order that other courts have found that inmates must be afforded the appropriate means to challenge a sex offender label in certain circumstances. That was particularly true in one case involving an inmate who, like Pratt, had not been convicted of a sex offense but was labeled a sex offender and required to take sex offender treatment."The court reasoned that 'the stigmatizing effect of being classified as a sex offender constitutes a deprivation of liberty under the Due Process Clause,' " Muirhead quoted in his order.

He concluded that if Pratt can show he was not provided adequate chance to challenge that label and treatment requirement, he may have a claim against prison staff.In their court response, prison officials have denied treating Pratt unfairly and argued that they are allowed to require Pratt to undergo sex offender treatment because while the judge dropped that program as a specific obligation, he did still required Pratt to participate in any counseling and treatment recommended by correction officials.

Prison staff have decided Pratt still remains a candidate for sexual offender treatment.Word spreads fastIn the interview, Ellison confirmed the disfavor a sex offender label brings an inmate inside prison - from inmates and staff. That's especially true for inmates whose crimes have received media attention, he said."It's the most discriminating witch hunt there is," he said. "(Prison staff) tell everybody. I was told within three or four minutes of getting to prison that people knew (of my offense)."Ellison said until he was sent to C-pod, he managed to stay out of harm's way by minding his own business and accepting responsibility for his crime. "I know I have a debt to repay to society.

I have great remorse," he said.But he doesn't believe his debt should include the beatings and discrimination he described in his lawsuit. Ellison is required to share his medical expenses with the inmate who assaulted him. And both were disciplined for the fight, not only Ellison. He doesn't think that is fair.Ellison said he fears more inmates will be assaulted because the prison staff have been shifting more inmates recently and have begun integrating more sex offenders into C-pod."It's a time bomb waiting to explode," he said.

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