On Sunday, September 5, 2010, the tragic life and brutal death of Timothy E. Helms mercifully came to an end at the age of 49. There are many people who live unfulfilled lives that are lacking love, amenities, and joy, but one would be hard pressed, by any measure, to find one as sad as Timothy Helms’s. He was dealt a bad hand at birth with a low I.Q. and the emergence of mental health problems as he developed. During his youth, he attended special education classes until he dropped out of school at the age of 16. His many psychiatric problems led to frequent hospitalizations in mental health facilities throughout his adult life. However, his early demise began with his entanglement with North Carolina authorities after a 1994 vehicular accident.
In 1994, Helms claimed that he was a passenger in a truck, driven by a drunken friend, which collided with another vehicle resulting in three deaths. Although he had no driver’s license, and it is unknown whether he even knew how to drive, North Carolina police and prosecutors determined that Helms was the driver and won convictions on three counts of second degree murder against him. He would be held in custody to live out the rest of what would be his remaining sixteen years of life.
The prison system is ill-equipped to treat the mentally ill, although many mentally ill people who allegedly run afoul of the law are housed there. During his years of incarceration, Helms accumulated 125 rule infractions, according to The News & Observer article. An infraction could be anything from threatening to harm staff and using profanity, which he was accused of doing, plus hoarding 84 postage stamps. Why hoarding postage stamps would be considered an infraction, I am unaware, but it does seem to bring into question the legitimacy of the other “infractions” against Helms. His punishment for these so-called infractions included spending 1,459 days in solitary confinement… referred to by the prisoners as “The Hole”… and euphemistically by corrections officials as “Administrative Segregation.” Although rules restricted solitary confinement to no more than 60 consecutive days (two months) for a prisoner, it was documented that Helms spent 571 consecutive days (more than a year and a half) in isolation. Researchers have stated that excessively long periods of isolation can lead to or exacerbate mental problems in individuals… and Helms already had a well defined history of mental illness (which included at least six mental disorder diagnoses). For good measure, while locked in his cell, Helms was typically kept in handcuffs and shackles.
Prior to the events which led to his head trauma, Timothy Helms told the psychologist assigned to visit him that he was being abused by the guards, and he pleaded to be released from solitary confinement. But that request was never realized until August 3, 2008, when Helms, according to officials, managed to use two batteries and a strip of metal to set his mattress on fire. It was at that time that he was dragged out of his solitary confinement cell by guards, and out of range of security cameras. The remainder of security camera footage showed Helms being carried to other prison cells, never ambulating upright.
It wasn’t until the following day that corrections officials decided to have his physical condition evaluated. At the emergency room at Catawba Valley Medical Center in Hickory, where he was transported in the back of a patrol car, he was found to have two skull fractures with bleeding in his brain, a fractured nose, and bruises and welts all over his body consistent with those made by a billy club. As a result of the injuries, Helms was reduced to a bed-ridden quadriplegic who could not even feed or bathe himself, and could barely speak.
How he sustained the injuries is in dispute. Helms stated that after being taken from his smoke-filled cell that fateful day, officers picked him up and used his head as a battering ram against the concrete block wall. Corrections officials in the “Hole” are mystified as to how Helms sustained his injuries. The SBI, after a thorough investigation, was stymied, as well, as to how Helms received two skull fractures with brainstem bleeding, a fractured nose, and “billy club”-like welts and bruises over his entire body. Department of Corrections Secretary Alvin Keller suggested that Helms may have slipped and fell, striking his head on the concrete floor.
The only person charged with any wrongdoing in this incident was Timothy Helms (who was already serving three life sentences) for destroying government property in setting the fire. Prosecutors eventually had the wisdom to drop the charges against him and not waste additional taxpayer dollars with the senseless prosecution of him.
In 2009, Disability Rights North Carolina, an advocacy group for the disabled, petitioned Secretary Keller to release Helms under a program that discharges prisoners whose medical condition ensures that they are no longer a threat to the public. Helms seemed to fit the requirements as he was a bed-ridden quadriplegic… but this request was denied by Keller. In addition, Keller denied requests to release the SBI’s investigative report into the matter, which is not surprising, at least to me.
Tragic, senseless, inhumane, brutal, criminal are all words that could be used to describe Helms’s treatment by the North Carolina criminal justice system. It reinforces the premise that a certain population (usually the disenfranchised, poor, people of color, and the mentally ill and retarded) can be abused by authorities without consequence. The media is selective in which cases of correctional misdeeds and malfeasance it does report on, and is quick to tamp down its coverage of the most egregious actions by prosecutorial or correctional officials.
What makes the Timothy Helms story so heart-wrenching is that he probably never should have been charged with a crime to begin with. I believe that it is questionable as to whether Helms was even the driver of the vehicle… and I doubt that he was. Instead of being confined to a prison cell, Helms should have been hospitalized in a mental health facility where he could have received treatment. The correctional system repeatedly hindered Timothy Helms’s family’s efforts to see and communicate with him, depriving them of the ability to monitor their loved one’s treatment at the hands of correctional officers. Department of Corrections administration also proved it is not above making false statements when it stated that guards at the facility did not carry billy clubs, when video tape at that time showed the contrary. Family members inquiring on Helms’s condition were also lied to by those in charge.
But I would not expect legislators to get upset over the horrendously cruel treatment Helms sustained, because politicians, prosecutors, media types, and many in the public view criminals as expendable entities who’s treatment and fate is of little or no consequence. In addition, the wealthy, powerful, and privileged in our society receive special privileges when it comes to scrapes with the law. For example, politician R. C. Soles can shoot an unarmed man (who has his back to him and is retreating) in the leg and only have to pay a small fine. The unregulated North Carolina State Bar won’t even consider taking any action against Soles for his criminal act and exceedingly poor judgment.
Legislators will get upset, however, when the well-heeled get accused of criminal wrong-doing. What made the Duke Lacrosse case such an enigma and out of the ordinary is that a prosecutor would actually charge defendants from wealth, status, power, and privilege with a crime… especially when the alleged victim is an African American woman. Because Mike Nifong based his decision to prosecute on matters of justice and did not allow the defendants’ families positions and connections dissuade him from pursuing justice, the full weight of the Tar Heel justice system was brought down on his head. How dare he… the state was going to make an example of Mr. Nifong.
Whether or not the North Carolina General Assembly elects to get motivated by the mistreatment of Timothy Helms is of little relevance. All of the rules in place to protect inmates are of little value if those carrying out the supervision of those jailed ignore them without consequence. Timothy Helms was not supposed to be held in The Hole for more than 60 consecutive days. He was held in solitary for more than nine times the maximum amount allowed, but was anyone held accountable? No.
The brutal, cruel, vicious, inhumane, degrading treatment of those incarcerated, some of whom are innocent, is but another scar which taints our state’s justice system. Incidents similar to that which happened to Timothy Helms is not all that rare. The media has touched on a few cases in which correctional officers broke the arm and smashed the face of inmate Theodore Jerry Williams. It also wrote a blurb about a male inmate who was stripped naked and had a female guard give his genitals a dose or two of pepper spray. Unfortunately, people caught in the criminal justice cogs are completely vulnerable and at the mercy of correctional officers, many of whom are racist and sadistic.
What people should keep in mind is that, sadly, what happened, in some degree, to Timothy Helms may be more the rule than the exception.