Prisoner's death in cell at State Correctional Institution Rockview raises questions
John "J.J." Carter recently died in a state prison. When Carter was 16, he killed a man in a robbery and was charged as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.
Michelle Williams, left, and her mother Apryle Williams are investigating the death of Apryle's son John "J.J." Carter, who recently died in a state prison.
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John Carter had many disputes with prison staff during the half of his life spent behind bars, but it was a clash over food that led to his death six weeks ago.
Carter, 32, of the North Side, was expecting to be switched back from despised "food loaf" to unblended grub on April 26, according to letters from inmates who were housed near his cell in the Restricted Housing Unit of the State Correctional Institution Rockview in Centre County. When he got food loaf anyway, and his verbal protests went unheeded, he threw feces at a corrections officer, inmates wrote in letters to the Post-Gazette.
Knowing there would be consequences, he covered the cell window with a blanket, blockaded the door and waited, probably with a wet shirt over his mouth as a makeshift gas mask, and perhaps wrapped in a mattress cover, inmates wrote.
What happened next is the subject of an investigation that "does not indicate any foul play at this time," according to a state police press release issued last month. Carter's sister, who lives with their mother in Perry South, has filed a private criminal complaint with the Centre County district attorney, calling her brother's death a homicide. Inmate rights activists said Carter's life and death raise questions about Department of Corrections policies on disciplinary housing.
"We've done a review of our procedures, what occurred, what we do, what we do well, what we could do better," said Jeffrey Rackovan, spokesman for SCI Rockview. "There were no glaring deficiencies."
After burying him May 6, Carter's family is trying to get to the root of his death. They've mobilized activist groups, set up an online petition and retained a civil attorney. Prison staff "must've thought that nobody cared and they can do what they want," said Apryle Williams, Carter's mother. "But a lot of people cared, and they're going to find that out."
Carter was 15 when he took part in an October 1995 robbery that netted not a cent but resulted in a death and landed him in jail for life.
He and a just-out-of-jail acquaintance held up two men in the Bloomfield area. The other man, Milo Davis, then 18, killed 31-year-old George Kirkland with a shotgun while Carter tried to pull the victim from under a streetlight into darkness. Carter and Davis got life in prison for second-degree homicide.
"He was really smart in school," Apryle Williams said on Wednesday. Teachers "told me that they could have him help other students."
He played basketball and wrote rap songs, but had social trouble from around age 13 when the family moved to Wilkinsburg. As a North Sider who had lived for a time in Garfield, he was not trusted at a time when neighborhood gangs warred.
"They would try to jump him," said Michelle Williams, Carter's sister, three years younger. He started skipping school, may have stolen a car, and was sent to boarding school for at-risk kids.
The family moved back to the North Side, to Allegheny Commons, and Carter attended Langley High School. He and Davis were acquaintances visiting a friend at a hospital when they committed the robbery.
"He didn't expect for the person to be killed," said Michelle Williams. That doesn't matter in the eyes of the law, nor does it matter that Carter didn't pull the trigger. Because of the severity of the crime, he was tried as an adult at age 16. His life sentence included no possibility of parole.
"He matured" in prison, said Michelle Williams. "He wasn't that same old person that robbed the man that night."
He sent her law books after he finished using them in his increasingly sophisticated challenges to the system. In 2005, he filed a writ of habeas corpus complaining that his confession in the case against him was invalid because it was spurred by a police interrogation done without telling his mother. It was dismissed because it was filed too late.
In 2008, Carter sued the state for confiscating a book for which he paid $75, called "Administrative Claim for Damages," which explains tort law. He said the confiscation was a violation of free speech and due process rights. A judge, though, found that confiscation of such books "reasonably related to the [prison's] interest in protecting government officials from fraudulent liens." Prisoners, the judge indicated, sometimes file bogus liens against property of prison staff.
In 2009, he wrote to the state House backing a bill that would prevent juveniles from being sentenced to life without parole.
Carter advised his sister, in letters, about raising kids. "He wanted me to instill love, caring and all in my kids," she said.
Though Carter wrote of love, his mother and sister know that he was a difficult prisoner. "He told me straight up that he's not going to go down on his knees," said Apryle Williams. "He'd rather stand and die as a man."
He was assigned to the restricted housing unit, sometimes known as solitary or "the hole." The family said they believe he was there for his last eight to 10 years.
The Department of Corrections refused to provide records reflecting Carter's assignment to restricted housing, or of misconduct accusations against him or grievances filed by him, saying that could compromise security.
Mr. Rackovan said that Carter was given chances, programs and transfers to different prisons.
"He remained in RHU because he continued to violate our rules and accumulate misconducts," he said. "It just gets to the point where, what else can we do with this particular individual?"
In restricted housing, he flouted the rules and became an inmate hero. "When I first arrived in SCI Rockview's RHU," wrote inmate Robert Hankins in response to a letter from the Post-Gazette, "it was Mr. Carter who called to me to see if I needed anything -- soap, toothpaste, dental floss, skin lotion, shampoo (to clean the filthy cell, and not my hair or body), wash rag, ink pen, writing paper and postage-paid envelopes."
Providing such items would be a violation, he said, but Carter didn't care. "That's the kind of person he was."
Carter fought a guard in 2008, and pleaded guilty last year to aggravated assault. He got five to 10 years added to his life sentence. It also landed him on the Restricted Release List, the prison system's most rigid solitary confinement assignment.
The list is reserved for inmates who have assaulted staff or inmates, made serious or successful escape attempts, tried to organize inmates or otherwise failed to respond to management. It requires the signature of the secretary of corrections -- the department's top official -- or a designee to get on the list, and the same signature to get off the list and out of restricted housing.
Getting a place on the list is "a product of long-term misbehavior," said Mr. Rackovan. "You have to have in the past been given some opportunities to turn yourself around, but the inmate has not taken advantage of the opportunities."
Why require the department secretary's sign-off?
"We're not going to give this guy a huge break without the department headquarters saying, yes you can," said Mr. Rackovan.
Prisoner rights groups said the designation has no rehabilitative value, and perpetuates the counterproductive solitary confinement system. [See accompanying story.]
"It's difficult to understand except as a means of burying somebody who has fallen into particular disfavor," said Bret Grote, an investigator for FedUp!, the Pittsburgh chapter of the Human Rights Coalition.
In 2010, Carter sued the state, writing that there is "no behavioral or objective criteria under policy to afford plaintiff any possibility of future release from the [Restricted Release List]." He complained that being on the list condemned him to indefinite solitary confinement without educational or vocational programming, therapy, visits except under extreme restrictions, television, radio and telephone access. Exercise and showers were rare, he wrote, and his cell was lighted 24 hours a day.
A judge cited an appeals court ruling that the state can put inmates on the list without any due process, and dismissed the case April 24.
Two days later, Carter wanted real food, not the mush given to prisoners with a history of throwing victuals at staff. He was denied.
"When the [corrections officer] was picking up the [food] trays, Mr. Carter threw his own feces on the [officer]; the smell was really bad," inmate George Kasine wrote in a letter to the Post-Gazette. Kasine was housed in a cell close to Carter's in the restricted housing unit.
Carter then blocked the window into his cell, another violation in what some prisoners characterized as an effort to get an audience with top brass. Several hours later, Kasine wrote, a team in riot gear and masks came to get Carter out.
"It was a cell extraction where the inmate had barricaded himself in the cell," said Mr. Rackovan. Of the inmate reports, he said, "They can't see what's going on, but they hear what's going on, so they make their own ideas of what's going on." He said the extraction was videotaped, and the footage was used in the internal review and given to police.
According to Kasine's account, a lieutenant "yelled 'inmate Carter uncover your door and come to the door and cuff up.' Mr. Carter did not respond." The lieutenant then gave the order, Kasine wrote in an account echoed by other inmates, to pump pepper spray into the cell, and then to open the door. "The cell would not open."
It's not clear why the door could not be opened from the outside. For an hour and a half, staff tried to open the door, Kasine wrote, and periodically pumped in more pepper spray. "The entire [cell] range was choked with [pepper] spray," he wrote. "I had to remove my T-shirt and tie it around my face to breathe."
Finally, the door was breached. "I immediately heard a loud commotion," Kasine wrote, "which sounded like fighting." The lieutenant "could be heard clearly yelling, saying, 'inmate Carter stop resisting.' ... I heard Mr. Carter scream 'my hands, get off my [expletive deleted] hands' and finally a prolonged grunt followed by silence."
Kasine wrote that Carter was carried out cuffed and shackled, nude except for a blanket, and the lieutenant ordered that 911 be called. "The entire range erupted in yelling and banging on doors."
The Department of Corrections wrote in a press release that Carter was taken to Mount Nittany Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Such deaths are rare in Pennsylvania prisons. The state's rates of inmate death by homicide, accident or unknown cause are below national averages, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics compilations of data from 2001 through 2009.
The state police investigation is still open, and Carter's cause of death undetermined, pending the toxicology reports. Stacy Parks Miller, Centre County district attorney, could not be reached for comment on how her office is handling the family's private criminal complaint.
Is there a silver lining?
"I told my cousin, 'You can learn from this,' " said Michelle Williams. "I think it will scare him into staying out of jail.
"You don't know what happens when you get into those gates."
First Published June 10, 2012 12:00 am