Inmate beaten by guards to get $125,000 from city To settle prisoners' lawsuits, Phila. taxpayers have paid thousands.

Posted: January 04, 2002

You might not like Donti Hunter, a convicted cocaine dealer who ran a Mantua drug ring. But if you pay taxes to the City of Philadelphia, you're helping to write him a six-figure check.

That's because prison guards beat Hunter so badly in 1999 that it took 74 stitches to close the wounds on his head.

The guards say Hunter started the fight, but two government agencies have decided that the guards went too far. Last month, the city agreed to pay Hunter $125,000 to settle his lawsuit. On Monday, five guards and a warden face trial on federal charges of brutalizing Hunter and trying to cover it up. All have pleaded not guilty.

"There is a place for justifiable use of force in this setting," said city prison spokesman Robert Eskind. "This was one that we found beyond justification."

Federal prosecutors' siding with an inmate - a cocaine dealer, no less - to bring charges against his jailers is unusual. The city's writing checks to inmates beaten in its jails is not. Seven other suits were settled this way last year. Together with Hunter's, they cost Philadelphia taxpayers more than a quarter of a million dollars.

Among the settled claims: that guards beat and hog-tied a deaf inmate who got into an argument with them; that a guard used Mace on an inmate, then beat him with the can, leaving him with bruises and crescent-shaped cuts; that an inmate suffered a fractured eye socket and other broken facial bones when he fought with guards. In each case, the city's lawyers determined, evidence was strong enough that juries might side with the inmates.

The Hunter episode began as a tussle over a bag of marijuana. Before it was over, federal prosecutors say, one guard was using handcuffs as brass knuckles to beat Hunter as he lay on the floor of a cell - even as a lieutenant shouted at guards to stop the beating.

It was sometime between 8:30 and 9 a.m. on March 11, 1999. At Curran-Fromhold, a prison that was built in 1995 to ease overcrowding but often has held hundreds more prisoners than the 2,016 it was designed for, corrections officers were doing a "shakedown" - a routine search for contraband.

Hunter, then 21 and known on the streets as "Pumpkin," had been convicted of running a drug ring in the city's impoverished Mantua neighborhood.

He also had broken out of another city jail a few years earlier - and, after he was caught, had ratted out a jail employee who he claimed helped him escape. Hunter's lawyers say that by the day before the shakedown, Curran-Fromhold's guards were calling him a new name: Snitch.

Prison internal-affairs investigators pieced together this account of what happened when guards searched Hunter's cell:

Sgt. Dennis Hardeman found the bag of marijuana inside a container of talcum powder. As he took out the drugs, Hardeman told investigators, Hunter hit him on the shoulder from behind, grabbed the bag, ran to another cell, and began flushing the drugs down a toilet.

Hardeman and other officers caught up with him, retrieved the remaining drugs, and got into a struggle with him. They said Hunter swung at them as they tried to restrain him.

Corrections officer Reginald Steptoe told investigators that Hunter hit him in the eye as he wrestled Hunter to the floor and tried to handcuff him. That, Steptoe said, was how Steptoe sustained shallow cuts and scratches on his hand.

Through his lawyer, Richard Malmed, Steptoe has denied using the handcuffs as a weapon and suggested that Hunter sustained his injuries when he struck the bed frame or other objects during the struggle.

A doctor who examined Steptoe told the prison's investigators that the injuries likely were caused "by striking something while holding a pair of handcuffs in his hand," and a federal grand jury agreed.

Inmate witnesses, too, said Steptoe was using handcuffs as brass knuckles. One inmate claimed to have seen blood drip from Steptoe's rubber gloves.

A prison supervisor, Lt. Linda Burnette, at first told internal investigators that she didn't see the beating. But Burnette soon changed her story, saying she had seen it, had tried to intervene, and had shouted again and again for the guards to stop - only to be pushed away.

She said she paged a captain, Winston Boston. He told investigators that when he arrived, Hunter's head was covered in blood - as was Steptoe's hand.

Burnette and Boston said that when they reported the beating to Glen Guadalupe, then the prison's deputy warden, he set out to cover it up.

Burnette told investigators that Guadalupe initially voiced outrage over the beating - but that when he learned which officers were involved, he told her: "Those are my boys. They can't burn. . . . We have to think of something."

She said Guadalupe suggested that she deny having witnessed the beating. Boston told investigators he was present for that conversation and heard Guadalupe tell Burnette to lie.

Through his lawyer, Jack McMahon, Guadalupe - who is on leave from his current post as warden of the women's jail - has denied trying to cover anything up and asking anyone to lie. McMahon said Guadalupe is "straight as an arrow" and had ordered a full investigation.

McMahon said the resulting 30-day suspension (later overturned) for Burnette and reprimand for Boston might have caused them to change their story and claim a cover-up.

The internal investigation also resulted in suspensions for Steptoe and three other guards.

Hunter, who is serving a 10-year sentence for drug dealing and other offenses, declined to comment for this story. Hunter's lawyer, Dennis J. Cogan, confirmed last night that his lawsuit against the city was settled for $125,000.

In a 1999 letter to then-U.S. Attorney Michael R. Stiles, Cogan wrote that other inmates had called to tell him of the beating. With his letter to Stiles, Cogan enclosed photographs that the lawyer's investigator had taken of Hunter's injuries. "The pictures," Cogan wrote, "speak for themselves."

Nancy Phillips' e-mail address is nphillips@phillynews.com.

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