An inmate says a photo that shows correctional officers in training giving a Nazi salute proves state officials aren’t doing enough to protect inmates from racism in West Virginia’s prison system.
In a federal lawsuit filed last week, Lermon Russell said he was attacked by a member of the Aryan Brotherhood while guards at Mount Olive Correctional Center stood by and either did nothing or helped facilitate the assault.
Russell, 44, said he was attacked more than a year ago by an inmate named Jacob Samples. He alleges Samples, 33, belongs to the Aryan Brotherhood, described in the lawsuit as the “nation’s oldest major white supremacist prison gang” with an estimated 20,000 members in the United States inside and outside prison.
In the lawsuit, Russell said several members of the Aryan Brotherhood — as well as correctional officers — had physically assaulted him, thrown his food on the ground and spread rumors to encourage the attack against him, often using racial slurs against him. The lawsuit includes a statement from Samples that says guards knew about and actively encouraged the plan to attack Russell.
The defendants in the lawsuit are the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation; current division Commissioner Betsy Jividen and former commissioner Loita Butcher; current Mount Olive Warden Donald Ames and former warden David Ballard; seven correctional officers and two nurses. Six of the defendant correctional officers are only identified by their last names: Hayhurst, Toney, Schrader, Smith, Bell and Benton. The other officer and the nurses are unidentified in the lawsuit.
Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Lawrence Messina said division officials only would comment on the case through court filings.
According to his lawsuit, Russell was the only black inmate in the area of the prison where the attack happened. The lawsuit doesn’t give the exact date of the attack, but notes Russell talked to another inmate about the attack roughly a year after it happened.
Russell alleges that Samples ambushed him in the prison showers, stabbing him at least once, gouging his eyes and punching him while screaming a racial slur at him. At the time, Russell says, he was in handcuffs and shackles and had been escorted to the showers by two correctional officers, Hayhurst and an unnamed officer.
Neither officer intervened until Samples got tired and quit attacking Russell, according to the lawsuit. Then both Russell and Samples were sprayed with pepper spray, Russell said, and an officer kicked him before he lost consciousness. A nurse at the prison told Russell he was in shock and would be fine, and didn’t provide Russell any other medical care, he said.
He said other correctional officers wouldn’t let him file grievances and wouldn’t help him get medical attention after the attack.
In his statement to Russell’s attorney, Samples said correctional officers knew about his plan to attack Russell and actively worked to let the attack happen.
One officer, named Smith, spread false information about Russell to members of the Aryan Brotherhood, saying Russell was a convicted child molester and was a “rat,” according to the lawsuit. In March 2019, Russell alleges, an Officer Benton threw hot coffee on him and called him a racial slur. Benton and another officer, named Bell, then allegedly made it appear Russell had thrown his food tray at them. The officers put Russell in shackles to take him to a medical unit, then yelled that he was resisting and attacked him, according to the lawsuit.
In May 2017, Lewis Circuit Judge Jacob Reger sentenced Russell to spend between two and 10 years in prison. Russell pleaded guilty to one count of malicious assault after he was accused of attacking a woman at a convenience store in Weston then driving his car into the store in July 2016.
Samples, a former Cross Lanes resident, was sentenced to between 14 and 85 years in prison in 2010 for several robberies and burglaries, including a holdup of the Poca Valley Bank branch in Clendenin.
Russell is represented by Charleston lawyer Sean Cook, who said he and Russell were compiling the lawsuit in December when the photo of the training class came to light. The photo depicts cadets of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Basic Training Class No. 18 raising their hand in a salute most commonly associated as a show of support to Nazi Germany leader Adolf Hitler.
All of the guards in the photo and three division staff members were fired, and four instructors were suspended without pay following an investigation.
Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeff Sandy told the Gazette-Mail that the photo was a case of young people who did not fully understand the implications of the salute, but were not driven by hate.
“The investigation showed there was no white supremacy, no neo-Nazi, just ignorance,” he said. “I guess you can say that’s the silver lining.”
In the lawsuit, Russell asks Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials to adopt policies, regulations and procedures to prevent similar incidents from happening to other inmates, and he wants an injunction from a judge that would prevent any Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees from retaliating against him for filing the lawsuit.
He also is seeking an unspecified payment from each officer named in the suit for pain, suffering and emotional distress.
Russell remains incarcerated at Mount Olive, according to prison records. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin.