For some five years, Lester DeShazor had regular run-ins with a Western Correctional Institution prison guard he had named in a 2011 lawsuit.
Despite his pleas to be moved to another facility, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services kept DeShazor under the watch of Officer Charles Barb and other officers he named in the suit. Now, the state spending board is poised to pay $85,000 to DeShazor and his attorney over what happened next.
DeShazor’s was one of two settlements involving incarcerated people approved by the Board of Public Works Wedensday. But one of the three member panel leveled a protest vote.
“My no vote was simply a way of saying, I’m not going to keep going along with these payments,” Maryland Treasurer Dereck E. Davis said after the meeting.
Davis said he was advised not discuss case details during the public forum, something he said he would do for today. “But that’s it for me going forward.”
“If I have to maintain my silence in order for those settlements to go through — which I have problems with to begin with — that just isn’t going to happen,” Davis said.
Davis said he sees a repeated disconnect between the payouts and the lack of accountability for the officers. “Almost every time — nothing,” he said.
Davis sent a clear message during the public forum.
“I want everyone to know every time we have to spend money for deleterious action, I’m going to speak on it,” Davis said. “People are going to know why money that could be going to their schools, going to their roads and other things, why it’s being diverted.”
What Davis didn’t reveal about DeShazor’s case against corrections officers can be found in publicly available court records.
Stuck in the Cumberland prison, DeShazor had his recreation and phone time denied by Barb on multiple occasions. Eventually, DeShazor asked for the forms to file a grievance against Barb in December 2016, according to court records.
Soon after that, Barb and another officer showed up at DeShazor’s cell for a search. They produced a knife, a weapon DeShazor swears was planted, and escorted him across the prison yard to another housing unit.
On the way, the officers claimed DeShazor was “resisting” commands, though video evidence later contradicted their accounts. Barb and seven other officers beat and punched DeShazor, injuring his eye and face and damaging nerves in his right hand, according to DeShazor and backed up by a federal judge’s initial interpretation of surveillance footage.
DeShazor’s face was coated with so much pepper spray that it looked like “whipped cream,” according to his testimony and court records. He was then forced into a cage with the chemical spray left on his face and without proper medical attention, the judge wrote in a memorandum opinion issued in 2020.
U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis was largely unconvinced by the arguments made by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which defended the officers’ actions despite video surveillance “seriously calling into question” the narratives officers wrote — that DeShazor had “resisted” — in their reports.
The department said Barb is no longer employed with the agency, but public records show that he has continued to work as a correctional officer for the state until at least 2020.
Xinis said she found it odd that officers claimed DeShazor wrote a written statement admitting the knife found in his cell was his with his arms behind his back, in the “lobby, conveniently outside the area captured by surveillance video.”
As for DeShazor, he wrote in a letter to the judge seeking legal assistance that the lead investigator assigned to his case worked with the officers he had accused for years before he was assigned to the investigative division.
“He was the lieutenant of the building the police beat me up in,” DeShazor wrote.
DeShazor ended his letter by pleading yet again for a transfer out of North Branch Correctional Institution, which he described as a stone’s throw away from WCI. Public records show he is still housed at North Branch. The corrections department did not answer questions about why DeShazor is still being incarcerated there
Xinis would end up agreeing with DeShazor — who represented himself for much of the trial — on many points.
DeShazor eventually retained attorney Bert Kapinus, who told The Baltimore Banner that DeShazor settled with the state in December and has been awaiting payment. The state took the position that its employees did nothing wrong, Kapinus said.
“But when the rubber hit the road, they recognized they really did have a bunch of rogue COs [corrections officers] who really messed with my client’s body and rights,” Kapinus said.
Kapinus added that DeShazor spent 60 days in solitary confinement at one point while the prison system searched for surveillance video to corroborate his story.
Even though the same officers may be working at North Branch, Kapinus said he doubts they’ll “mess with” DeShazor and that he “probably is somewhat safe at this point.”
But the seasoned attorney, based on his experience working with incarcerated clients, said he expects there will be others. “You see enough of this, and if it’s not him, it’s going to be somebody else.”