This much is clear: On April 26, John Carter died in his prison cell.
Beyond that, not much is certain. And disputed details are developing into a conflict between state officials, who say Carter's death involved no foul play, and prisoner-rights groups who suspect he was killed by unchecked, over-aggressive corrections officers.
A 32-year-old Pittsburgh native, Carter had been locked up since he was 16. He and a friend attempted a robbery in 1995 that left a man dead. Carter didn't pull the trigger, but he was convicted of second-degree murder. In Pennsylvania, that'll usually send a man to prison for life — even if he's a teen-ager when the crime occurs. Carter died at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, a medium-security prison about seven miles outside State College.
The official Department of Corrections press release says Carter "was found unresponsive in his cell by corrections officers and medical staff at approximately 9:45 p.m." A release sent out by the Pennsylvania State Police, meanwhile, reiterated that Carter "had barricaded himself in the cell and refused numerous orders to surrender to DOC personnel." Noting that an investigation is ongoing, it added that "[e]vidence, including video evidence of the incident, does not indicate any foul play at this time."
So what did the video show? What causes a 32-year-old man to drop dead? Pennsylvania State Police spokesman David McGarvey declined to say, citing the ongoing investigation.
Less than a week after Carter's death, the superintendent's assistant at SCI-Rockview, Jeffrey Rackovan, told City Paper that Carter had been in solitary confinement. He had "barricaded" his cell door, draped a blanket over the cell's window and placed magazines underneath the door "so it couldn't be opened." Rackovan said corrections officers asked Carter to take down the blanket, but Carter wouldn't respond. So the COs opened the door. They "found Carter on the floor unresponsive," Rackovan said.
Was it a suicide? Rackovan wouldn't speculate. But he did say an autopsy was "inconclusive." Center County Coroner Scott Sayers confirmed that, adding that a toxicology report was forthcoming.
In the meantime, Carter's sister, Michelle Williams, sent City Paper a letter from prisoner Anthony Gray, who claimed he was in SCI-Rockview's solitary-confinement unit when Carter died. The letter didn't mince words.
"These pigs just killed family," the letter began, before saying Carter was beaten bloody by a group of guards who doused him with pepper spray. (Sayers told CP that Carter's body was neither bruised nor bloodied.)
Gray's letter indicated Carter was in a dispute with prison guards at SCI-Rockview stemming from a judge's decision — entered two days before Carter's death — denying Carter's request to be taken off the DOC's Restricted Release List. The list is a controversial statewide roll of more than 200 prisoners deemed so combative that they're not allowed to leave solitary confinement.
Other letters were sent to the Human Rights Coalition and Fight for Lifers, prisoner-advocacy groups with headquarters at the Thomas Merton Center, in Garfield.
One of those letters, from a prisoner who claimed he was in solitary confinement near Carter's cell and asked not to be identified, said Carter's dispute was not over the release list, but over his food allotment. But the letters otherwise tell largely the same story. In that account, Carter covered his cell window in protest, and did not respond when guards called for him to uncover it. So guards began a "cell extraction," which involves filling the cell with pepper spray before corrections officers physically remove the prisoner from the cell.
That procedure was followed in Carter's case, both letters say, though they claim additional pepper spray was used when the door jammed. Once a maintenance crew opened it, they contend, a struggle ensued during which Carter could be heard screaming. Then guards dragged Carter out by his ankles. Fifteen minutes later, the prisoners say, a nurse on duty shouted, "Call 911!"
Local groups have set up petitions on Facebook, Change.org and elsewhere broadcasting their concerns about Carter's death.
Carter's sister said she plans to conduct an independent autopsy and file a civil lawsuit against the state. She has two years to do so.
"We're going to get to the bottom of this," Williams said. "We don't really know all that happened yet, but we're going to find out. Just you wait and see."