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Williams v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation And Correction

Court of Claims of Ohio

April 27, 2018

NATHANIEL WILLIAMS, ADMR., etc. Plaintiff
v.
OHIO DEPARTMENT OF REHABILITATION AND CORRECTION Defendant

          Sent to S.C. Reporter 5/4/18

          DECISION OF THE MAGISTRATE

          ROBERT VAN SCHOYCK MAGISTRATE

         {¶1} This action arises from the death of NaTuan Williams, who had been an inmate in defendant's custody, resulting from an altercation with fellow inmate Carl Hall at Ross Correctional Institution (RCI) on June 27, 2011. Plaintiff, the administrator of Williams' estate, brings this action for wrongful death and survivorship. The issues of liability and damages were bifurcated and the case proceeded to trial on the issue of liability.

         SUMMARY OF TESTIMONY

         {¶2} Inmate Carl Hall testified by way of deposition.[1] (Defendant's Exhibit K.) Describing the circumstances leading up to the fatal altercation, Hall explained that a month or two earlier, corrections officers confiscated some bootleg wine, known as hooch, from Williams. Williams blamed him for the loss of the hooch, Hall stated, accusing him of having "snitched" to the officers. Hall testified that he and Williams and others in their housing unit gathered in a cell one day and talked about the dispute and after he denied Williams' accusations, a scuffle broke out between the two. According to Hall, Williams rammed his head into a bedpost and split it open and left lacerations and bruises on his back and neck. Hall testified that corrections officers subsequently asked him how he got injured but he did not tell them. Hall stated that he was taken to the infirmary for treatment and was then placed in the segregation unit. Hall related that Williams was also placed in segregation, as was inmate Antoine Davis, who witnessed the scuffle and lived in the cell where it occurred. As Hall related, there was an investigation in which corrections staff sought to determine the underlying facts, but he considered the dispute to be over and he told the staff nothing. Hall also related that in prison culture, inmates who divulge information to authorities are considered snitches and put themselves at risk of reprisal.

         {¶3} Hall stated that when he and Williams were eventually released from segregation, they were placed in separate housing units, whereas before they only lived two or three cells apart in the same housing unit. As Hall described, however, he still saw Williams in the chow hall and Williams persisted in making threatening statements and gestures. Hall recounted that Williams insisted that Hall pay him to settle the matter and had friends deliver Hall notes a couple of times setting forth Williams' demands, including a note that Hall received at a church service demanding "30 coffees and 30 dollars."

         {¶4} Hall stated that there was a schedule for when inmates from the various housing units could visit the north recreation yard and he watched the schedule so as to avoid seeing Williams there. Hall, who explained that he had been in prison since 1992 on aggravated murder and kidnapping convictions, testified that he wanted to avoid any trouble because he had an upcoming hearing before the Parole Board. Hall stated that he did not expect Williams to be in the north recreation yard on June 27, 2011, but that Williams ended up being there and approached him, making threatening gestures. Hall testified that he told Williams he did not want any trouble and to let the matter go, at which point Williams said "I'll be back." Hall stated that the nearest corrections officer was at the north tie shack near the gate, 60 to 70 yards away. When Williams returned shortly thereafter, Hall stated, Williams was wearing gloves and had a group of friends around. Hall recounted that Williams took a swing at him and they began to fight. According to Hall, a weapon appeared and he picked it up off the ground and stabbed Williams in what he considered a self-defensive measure. Hall testified that when corrections officers intervened the weapon was on the ground again and he picked it up and tried to throw it over a fence so that Williams' friends could not pick it up and stab him.

         {¶5} Hall stated that he does not know where the weapon, a metal shank, came from. When asked about plastic strips that were tied around his wrist at the time, Hall denied that they were for securing the weapon and explained that he had a habit of making the strips from garbage bags and keeping them handy to use as closures for bags of snacks. Hall stated that he must eat frequently because he had stomach cancer and underwent a full surgical removal of the stomach. Hall stated that he was initially convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole for the killing, but the conviction was vacated and he ultimately pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and a weapon charge.

         {¶6} Inmate James Bliss testified by way of deposition.[2] (Defendant's Exhibit L.) Bliss stated that he had been at RCI since 2004 and had known Hall for 2 or 3 years, and that he did not know Hall to be violent. Bliss stated that he did not know much about Williams, whom he described as younger and bigger than Hall. When asked if he heard any inmates talk to corrections officers about problems between Hall and Williams, Bliss replied that he had not and that inmates generally do not discuss such things with officers. According to Bliss, Hall seemed worried on the morning of June 27, 2011. Bliss testified that when the yard was opened for recreation, he was preparing to run on the track when the altercation began nearby on the basketball court. Bliss related that he saw Williams come up and take a swing at Hall, who put his hands up and backed away. As Bliss described, several inmates who knew Williams stood around and egged him on, whereas Hall had no support, and Williams was positioned between Hall and the north tie shack. According to Bliss, Williams started beating Hall up, took him to the ground, and got on top of him. Bliss stated that Hall then apparently stabbed Williams, at which point Williams restrained Hall on the ground. Williams yelled out "he got a knife" at some point, Bliss stated, but he did not realize Williams had been stabbed until he saw blood and he did not see the weapon until Hall threw it out of the area. Bliss testified that there had been no corrections officers nearby, but they came running once an alarm was called. Bliss recalled officers clearing inmates out of the yard and a lieutenant trying to aid Williams. Regarding pat searches of inmates entering the yard, Bliss stated that these were infrequent in his experience, but that inmates were subject to search at any time.

         {¶7} Inmate Baretta Wilford testified by way of deposition.[3] (Defendant's Exhibit M.) Wilford, who stated that he has been in prison since 1993, testified that he was friendly with both Williams and Hall, but was closer to Williams. Wilford explained that he ran a kind of underground store where inmates could purchase commissary items during times when they could not visit the actual commissary, and Williams worked as the "muscle" in this enterprise. In terms of problems between Williams and Hall, Wilford recounted a time when Hall had some hooch for sale and Williams wanted to make a purchase on credit, but Hall would not allow it. Wilford also described a subsequent time when corrections officers confiscated hooch from Williams, which Williams believed resulted from Hall tipping off the officers. Wilford testified that Williams and Hall later got into a fight in the cell next to his, and when he was alerted to it he went and broke it up. Williams had no visible injuries, but Hall's head was split open, Wilford stated. According to Wilford, he took Hall into his cell and cleaned him up, at which point a corrections officer came by and saw Hall's injury. Wilford testified, though, that he told the officer nothing about what happened other than to say that no weapon had been involved.

         {¶8} Wilford recalled that Hall was taken to the infirmary and then put in segregation, and later Williams was put in segregation as well. Wilford testified that when Williams and Hall were released from segregation, they were separated into different housing units but there still would have been opportunities to see one another in the chow hall or chapel. According to Wilford, he spoke to both men around that time and tried to dissuade Williams from the idea that Hall had snitched against him, but Williams persisted in his belief and demanded that Hall pay him 10 bags of coffee, which "in penitentiary money, equals $30." Wilford stated that he never knew Hall to attack anyone or carry a weapon and he never heard Hall threaten Williams, but he understood that Hall had some property stolen from him during this time and was tired of being messed with. Wilford also stated that Williams was stronger than Hall and that it was apparent Hall had some health problems. Neither man expressed any desire to him to be separated from the other any more than they already were, according to Wilford.

         {¶9} Inmate Leonard Allen testified by way of deposition.[4] (Defendant's Exhibit N.) As Allen related, he knew both men, meeting Hall in 2004 at Warren Correctional Institution and meeting Williams in about 2007 at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. Williams was younger and bigger than Hall, who had some health problems, Allen stated. Allen described efforts he and inmate Damon Edwards made to defuse the conflict between Williams and Hall after the initial altercation. Allen stated that he advised Williams to let it go, but Williams insisted that Hall pay him. Allen stated that he never heard Williams threaten Hall, though. According to Allen, a pair of headphones was stolen from Hall amidst the dispute and Hall felt that Williams was involved and he wanted the headphones back. Allen stated that in his experience when inmates were in a serious fight and came before the Rules Infraction Board, they were routinely separated onto opposite sides of RCI. Allen stated that neither man here expressed to him a desire to be further separated from the other. Allen stated that he understood Edwards to be someone who furnished shanks for others but that he has no personal knowledge about Hall getting a weapon from anyone, and he also noted that Edwards was on good terms with Williams.

         {¶10} Inmate Damon Edwards testified by way of deposition.[5] (Defendant's Exhibit O.) Edwards stated that he first met Hall at Warren Correctional Institution in 1996, but only remembered speaking to Williams once. Edwards recalled that he and Allen talked to Hall about the dispute with Williams. Hall had a parole hearing coming up and just wanted Williams to leave him alone after the initial altercation, Edwards recalled, and Hall wanted Edwards and Allen to talk to Williams on his behalf. According to Edwards, some property was stolen from Hall but to his knowledge Hall did not blame Williams. Edwards stated that he never knew Hall to be violent or to carry a weapon, and for his part Edwards strongly denied any involvement in making or supplying weapons for others.

         {¶11} Lieutenant Joey Powers testified that he has been employed by defendant at RCI since 1993. Powers stated that he received two or three months of training at defendant's academy when he was hired and that he has continued to receive training since that time, including on topics such as conducting investigations, managing inmates, and identifying threats. Powers stated that he serves as a supervisor of corrections officers and has the authority to initiate investigations and deploy staff as needed to assist with investigations.

         {¶12} According to Powers, on May 24, 2011, he was making rounds through Williams and Hall's housing unit when a corrections officer told him something was wrong with Hall and that Hall claimed to have injured himself. Powers stated that he spoke to Hall, who gave a story about injuring himself that was slightly different than what the officer related, so he decided to investigate. Powers related that Hall received a medical examination from a nurse and was then placed in security control within the segregation unit for his own safety. Because he could not reasonably conclude at that time that the injury was anything other than accidental, Powers stated, he did not prepare an incident report, but he would have made and kept notes about what Hall and the officer told him. Powers allowed at one point in his testimony that at least under the language of a later version of defendant's policy on Incident Reporting and Notification, an incident report should have been prepared, but later he stated that it was not necessary. In any event, Powers stated, he at least prepared a Report of Security Control (Plaintiffs Exhibit 19-15) which was forwarded to the warden or his designee together with the medical examination report and a suicide questionnaire. Powers testified that it is standard at the end of one's shift to let the supervisors coming on shift know what transpired recently and what to be on the lookout for, and that at the end of his shift that day, he informed a lieutenant that Hall was in security control on suspicion that he may have been injured in an altercation.

         {¶13} Powers stated that documents show that the next day, May 25, 2011, another staff member placed inmate Antoine Davis in security control in connection with the investigation, and on May 26, 2011, then-Lieutenant Michael Yates did the same with Williams. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 12.) Powers testified that he met privately with Davis, Hall, and Williams multiple times in the segregation unit and also spoke to others, including cellmates, and aside from what Hall said about slipping and falling, they all claimed that they saw nothing and knew nothing. Powers described a code among inmates, especially older inmates like Hall, to not snitch on one another. Powers recounted that when he met with Williams, Williams claimed that he did not know Hall or mess with Hall. Powers stated that he also spoke to the corrections officers who worked in the housing unit where Davis, Hall, and Williams lived.

         {¶14} As Powers explained, he kept Hall in security control in the segregation unit for the seven days that he was initially limited to, and he was able to obtain a seven-day extension, but after the two weeks were up he had not been able to get any meaningful information. Powers testified that he did not have information to support citing anyone for a rules infraction, but that as a precaution he had the count office place Williams and Hall into different housing units, with Davis going back to their original unit, so that in case there was some dispute at least they would not be living in close proximity. Powers related that inmates can be subjected to a more formal local separation at RCI, placing one on the north side and one on the south side of the compound, and that while inmates can also be separated into different institutions, that requires the warden's approval and the facts must demonstrate just cause. Powers also stated that inmates can request to be separated from others and can also request to be placed in protective control if they fear for their safety, but Hall and Williams were asked about it and both declined.

         {¶15} When the fatal altercation occurred, Powers stated, he was in the captain's office and heard a call for assistance over the radio. Powers recalled that Corrections Officers John Cox and Darwin Secrest were at the scene when he arrived, and although he was one of the first responders, the altercation was over. Powers recalled helping secure Hall, who was on the ground and compliant with orders from Secrest, who had a canister of OC spray pointed at Hall, and he heard Cox announce he had secured the weapon. Powers testified that Williams screamed for help and staff members tried to render aid. Powers described trying to maintain control of the scene, having inmates back away but not leave. Powers stated that he handcuffed Hall and saw some string or tape around Hall's wrist, and that he escorted Hall to the infirmary. According to Powers, Hall told him to recover a note from his cell that Williams supposedly sent him. Powers stated that after Hall left the infirmary, he was placed in segregation.

         {¶16} Captain Michael Yates testified that he has been employed with defendant since 1995 and that at the time of the incident he held the rank of lieutenant, mostly working the second shift. Yates recalled being informed by Powers in May 2011 that Hall had a head injury and that it was unknown whether Hall fell or was in an altercation. Yates related that the investigation into Hall's injury was conducted by Powers, not himself, and that it is very rare for inmates to inform on one another, but that he did learn from an inmate that Williams and Hall had an argument. Yates stated that he therefore put Williams under security control in the segregation unit because he felt it was relevant to Powers' investigation and he shared the information he obtained with Powers. Yates stated that he was familiar with Williams, whom he described as a big kid who had not learned "how to do his time" and was always close to getting in trouble, although he had never put Williams in segregation before. Yates' testimony included a description of the manner in which corrections officers would monitor the recreation yard, and he also described how the RCI administration oversaw efforts to investigate and locate weapons through shakedowns and otherwise. Yates explained how investigators at RCI tracked weapons data and would alert staff at times to look out for certain kinds of weapons.

         {¶17} Robert Jeffreys stated that he is employed by defendant as a regional director, but that at the time of the incident he served as warden of RCI. Jeffreys testified that Hall's head injury in May 2011 was not something he would typically have known about and indeed he had not been aware of it. Jeffreys stated that the Report of Security Control documenting Hall being placed in security control pending Powers' investigation was signed as received by his designee, Deputy Warden Jeffrey Lisath, who oversaw operations, unit management, maintenance, recreation, and security. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 19-15.) Jeffreys described the protective control policy that was available for inmates who were in fear for their safety, but he also stated that it was common for inmates to deny being in fear of anyone.

         {¶18} Jeffreys testified that RCI was populated by level three offenders and it was part of the culture that many inmates wanted to possess shanks because they felt unsafe or otherwise. Jeffreys recounted that officials at RCI tracked weapons confiscations and that the number of weapons found was high in his opinion. (Plaintiffs Exhibit 19-9.) Jeffreys described the practices that were employed to look for weapons, including policies for shaking down cells and conducting random pat searches of inmates throughout the first and second shifts, and subjecting those leaving the maintenance shop to metal detectors. Shown a photograph of the shank used in the fatal altercation, Jeffreys testified that he has not seen another that looks like it and he does not recognize where the metal came from. (Defendant's Exhibit F.) Jeffreys was asked whether he was aware inmates had made weapons from metal taken out of fluorescent light fixtures, and he stated that he was and that the maintenance department had been considering a solution. Jeffreys explained that maintenance staff could perform ...


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