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Critics Hit Justice Dept. Delay in Explaining Death of Shackled Prisoner

Times Staff Writer

Virginia Crawford says she cannot understand the law’s delay.

It has been more than three months since her brother, Vinson Preston Harris, met a nightmarish death aboard a federal prison bus, en route from Mecklenburg County Jail here to the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa.

Published interviews with two prisoners on the bus with Harris contend the 31-year-old black man, who was on his way to Lewisburg to serve a 20-year sentence for bank robbery, suffocated after guards wrapped his face and mouth with elastic bandages and duct tape.

Death Was Homicidal

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Moreover, an autopsy report released by the state coroner’s office in early April ruled that Harris died of asphyxiation and that the manner of his death was homicidal, whether intentional or not. The report said that signs on Harris’ body indicated he also had been shackled with leg-irons and handcuffs at the time of his death.

But so far, even though the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons have submitted the results of their investigation into the incident, the Justice Department has not offered an official explanation or suggested that it might seek prosecution of those involved in Harris’ death.

“I don’t know why they haven’t brought the people forward who did it,” said Crawford, who lives in a public-housing project on the edge of downtown Charlotte. “I think they’re just not interested in the case because of who my brother was. If it was one of the guards that had got killed instead of a prisoner, they would have brought the people forward who did it by now.”

Voicing Their Outrage

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Harris’ sister is not the only one who believes that the wheels of the Justice Department are grinding too slowly. A growing number of organizations--among them community groups, prisoner rights advocates and one of North Carolina’s leading newspapers--are voicing their outrage at the apparently slow pace of the department’s response.

James E. Barnett, chairman of People United for Justice, a Charlotte civil rights group, contends the Justice Department is playing for time in hopes the public will forget about the incident.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions in this case,” Barnett said. “We would like to know exactly what happened and who’s going to be held responsible. Vinson Harris’ death was a racist-type action that is happening to black men all over the United States.”

‘Almost Unbelievable’

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Marvin Sparrow, director of the Charlotte-based North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, said the Harris case is “so out of the ordinary that it is almost unbelievable.”

The number of prisoner deaths from homicide in the federal prison system was 16 in 1981, 11 each in 1982 and 1983, 13 in 1984 and 11 in 1985, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Over the same period, the total federal prison population has increased by more than one-third from 26,210 in 1981 to 36,042 in 1985.

The bureau does not break down the homicide figures to show where they were committed or whether they were committed by prisoners against other prisoners or by guards against prisoners. But bureau officials and prisoner rights advocates agree that the incidence of prisoner homicides in transit would be extremely low.

Dramatically Brutal

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What makes Harris’ death so extraordinary is the dramatically brutal fashion in which in happened. That, coupled with the apparently routine manner in which the Justice Department is treating the incident, has the potential for turning Harris’ death into a much larger symbol of official callousness and insensitivity.

“There may be reasons why guards might have to hit a prisoner or use restraints on him if he’s unruly,” Sparrow said. “But there’s no reason for correctional officers to wrap somebody up with tape and gag his mouth.”

Justice Department officials say the case is under review by the criminal section of the agency’s civil rights division and that it might be months before the process is completed.

‘Thousands of Complaints’

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“There’s a huge caseload in the civil rights division,” said department spokeswoman Amy Brown. “They get thousands of these complaints each year. It’s not unusual for these reviews to take three months or longer.”

She said the purpose of the review is to determine whether the investigation should be closed without bringing any action or should be presented to a grand jury for possible prosecution.

Harris’ mother, Annie M. Harris, plans to file a wrongful death claim against the federal government, seeking damages for Harris’ personal injuries and the pain and suffering he endured, says W. Joseph Dozier, a Charlotte attorney.

Outraged Widespread

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“Everybody I’ve talked to, from the medical examiner’s office on down, is outraged by the manner of Vinson Harris’ death,” Dozier said.

Jan Elvin, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project in Washington, expressed doubts about the possibility of Harris’ family collecting any damages.

She cited as a precedent a case filed by the National Prison Project in 1979 on behalf of 37 prisoners who contended they were beaten and otherwise abused by guards at the Lewisburg prison.

A jury found that prison officials had inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on three inmates in the incident, which involved guards armed with ax handles. But the jurors refused to impose liability damages against the warden or any other officials at the institution, saying the punishment had been administered in good faith.

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Prisoners Interviewed

Harris’ death began to attract attention after Sally Jacobs, a reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer, interviewed two prisoners who were among the 13 inmates on the bus with Harris.

According to their accounts, given in separate interviews in mid-April, Harris was harassed by Lt. Gerry G. Dale and another of the four federal officers on the bus almost from the moment he was brought aboard on the morning of March 4.

They said Harris was one of two inmates made to wear a hard plastic device known as a “black box” around his wrists in addition to the customary leg-irons and handcuffs. The box prevents a prisoner from tampering with the handcuff lock, but also is painful to wear and often causes prisoners’ hands to swell after a few hours.

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Face Wrapped With Bandage

The two prisoners said Dale wrapped Harris’ face and mouth in an elastic bandage and secured it with duct tape in a moment of pique after the bus had arrived at the federal prison in Butner, N.C., about 12 miles north of Durham.

They said that Harris--handcuffed, shackled at the feet and chained to the bus seat--soon went into convulsions and then slumped to the side while a dozen prison officials looked on, some of them laughing among themselves.

Harris was taken to Durham County General Hospital by an emergency medical team and was declared dead by hospital physicians. A hospital spokesman said Harris arrived in critical condition but “it was irreversible at that point.”

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‘Snail’s Pace’

The News and Observer has run a series of editorials inveighing against the “snail’s pace” of the Justice Department’s investigation. “Such sloth contradicts the law-and-order image of the Reagan Justice Department and its attorney general, Edwin Meese III,” one editorial said.

Another piece noted that, as late as nine weeks after Harris’ death, a Justice Department spokesman told a News and Observer reporter that the agency had never heard of the Harris case.

According to the autopsy report by William Oliver, North Carolina’s assistant chief medical examiner, the federal Bureau of Prisons had declined to provide him with details of its investigation. “They (the agency) did, however, indicate that their investigation suggests that the nose (of Harris) was not covered (by the tape),” the autopsy report said.

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Decline Comment

Bureau of Prison officials declined to comment on the the case, and declined to make the guards involved available for questions.

Kathryn Morse, a bureau spokeswoman, also said that all of the guards on the bus with Harris are still on duty and that no restrictions have been imposed against their being used as escorts on federal prison buses. “We need to wait until all the reports are completed before any decision is made” as to possible disciplinary action against the guards, Morse said.

“That’s a disgrace,” said Elvin of the ACLU. “You would think it would be standard procedure in a case like this to suspend the guards until they’re exonerated.”

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“I feel so bad,” said Harris’ sister Crawford. “I know I can’t help my brother now but I would like to know what really happened on that bus. I guess I’m just going to pray and try to get God’s help.”


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