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Updated: Monday, 04 Feb 2013, 9:23 PM EST
Published : Sunday, 03 Feb 2013, 9:00 PM EST
CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (WPRI) - A corrections officer from the Wyatt Detention Center is accusing the prison's administration of mishandling an investigation into an alleged attack on him by an inmate and says he was admonished for raising questions about the incident.
Scot Belford, 37, of Glocester, is speaking out for the first time about a violent attack in which state police say a handcuffed inmate knocked him unconscious, causing serious injuries.
"I felt I wasn't only assaulted by that detainee, I felt I was assaulted by the facility," Belford said in a televised interview with WPRI 12.
Belford said he was told by prison officials not to discuss the incident with the media, but decided to speak out – even at the risk of losing his job – because he hoped it might prompt the prison's board of directors to make changes at the top.
"I told myself a long time ago, once I realized how wrong the situation was I was going to do anything in my power to make it right," Belford said. "I have to ensure what happened to me never happens to anybody else. The Wyatt detention facility is not safe right now."
"That administration is still there and in my opinion they have done everything they can to keep this situation quiet," Belford added.
A state police investigation into the alleged assault found the prison's chief of security – Major Christopher Coburn – ordered Belford to handcuff the inmate to the front of his body, rather than behind his back as prison protocol demands. In the report obtained by Target 12, Detective Matthew Salisbury wrote that Coburn may have destroyed a videotape of the incident.
"Circumstantial evidence obtained through interviews, suggests that Major Coburn's lapse in judgment caused him to destroy evidence of the assault, thereby obstructing justice," Detective Salisbury wrote in the report.
Coburn was not charged with a crime in this case and is still working at the Wyatt Detention Center but has been moved to an "administrative assignment" pending the outcome of an internal investigation, according to the facility's lawyer, Margaret Lynch Gadelata.
"This assignment should be no way construed as any wrongdoing," Lynch Gadelata said. She declined Target 12's request to interview Coburn or a member of the prison's administration, citing the ongoing investigation.
'When I came to...'
During the overnight hours of April 9, 2011, Lt. Belford and two other officers responded to the cell of inmate Christopher Morales. He was suspected of drinking a homemade alcoholic beverage brewed from rice and had become belligerent, knocking the head off a sprinkler, causing water to flood his cell.
Belford knew Morales. He had a reputation for being violent and Belford said he had just assaulted another officer earlier in the day. Morales' behavior had earned him a spot in "maximum custody status," a high security area in the prison.
According to Belford, every interaction with inmates in maximum custody – even sliding a food tray through the slot in the door – is done with three officers present, one of them videotaping the entire exchange.
Belford said it was no different that night.
"I notified [Major Coburn] of the assault and of the detainee flooding out his cell," Belford recalled. "[Coburn] arrived at the facility and stated he wanted the detainee removed from his cell so the cell could be cleaned up."
Belford said he ordered the inmate to turn around, back facing the door, and commanded him to place his hands through the slot on the door to be handcuffed. But Morales refused, stating he would only leave if they handcuffed him to the front. Belford picked up the phone to the control room at the facility and again got Coburn on the line.
"I notified the major that he was refusing to leave the cell unless I cuffed him to the front," Belford said. "He said, 'Cuff him in the front.'"
Belford said he pleaded with Coburn to change his mind, reminding him the inmate had just assaulted another officer.
"To cuff that guy in the front, it wasn't worth it," Belford said. "It was against policy and it was something I did not want to do. I made that very clear."
But Belford said he was ordered again by Coburn so he followed the directive.
Morales was removed from the cell so it could be cleaned. Once done, the inmate – still handcuffed – was brought back to his cell so he could be locked up once again. Belford said Morales became agitated because his personal items had been taken away, and he began threatening the officers. Belford recalled that's when he and his men started to back out of the cell, but the heel of his foot bumped into the toe of the man behind him.
"I don't even think I turned my head, I glanced down quickly and looked back up and [Morales] was already coming down on me with the handcuffs," Belford said. "When I came to I couldn't hear anything, I couldn't see anything. Slowly my vision came back ... I saw all the red which was my blood."
Belford said the prison erupted in chaos, inmates were "screaming and hollering," and he was struggling to regain consciousness and figure out what was going on.
With the other officers restraining Morales, Belford – dazed and gushing blood – made his way back to the prison’s control center and was eventually transported to the hospital.
According to a state police report about the incident, "Lieutenant Belford continues to suffer from complications as a result of the injury."
Charges, two years later
After being out of work for several weeks, Belford returned to the prison only to discover Morales had not been charged. He also said he "got word" the tape of the incident had been destroyed.
"Every time I asked about the status it felt like a door was being shut in my face, nobody wanted to talk about it," Belford said. "They were treating me as if I had done something wrong."
Belford said he continued to press the issue and found the relationship between him and the prison administration turned toxic.
He left work, citing stress, but his workman's compensation request was denied. He also claims the prison would not allow his colleagues to donate their sick time to him.
Belford, while still technically employed by the prison, has not received a paycheck since he left on stress leave.
The Rhode Island U.S. Marshals and the Office of Inspector General originally investigated the incident but declined to prosecute based on "improper handling of evidence," according to the state police report.
Belford eventually retained attorney John Grasso, who asked the state police to launch the investigation.
Morales, 22, of Boston, was charged in January by the R.I. Attorney General’s office with two felony counts of assault and battery and will be arraigned at a later date. He wrapped up his federal sentence on an unrelated gun charge last month.
He had been moved to a prison in Pennsylvania shortly after the incident with Belford. Captain Michael Winquist of the R.I. State Police said the Attorney General's office will coordinate with Pennsylvania officials to bring Morales back to face charges.
Captain Michael Flannery of the Schuykill, Penn. Sheriff's office confirms Morales has been in their custody since he was released from federal prison on January 30. Morales waived his right to an extradition hearing and will be there until he is transported to Rhode Island, according to Flannery.
Belford said he was relieved when he learned Morales had been charged.
"The detainee should be held accountable for what he did," Belford said. "For a while there he was not and that sends the wrong message ... because other detainees will say 'if I crack someone’s head in half I won’t be charged for it.'"
Last week the prison's board of directors met in executive session and voted to hire an expert to examine the Belford case, according to their attorney.
"The outside independent investigator will review the whole incident including the handling of evidence," Lynch-Gadelata said. "That person will go back to the board with recommendations and determine if any action should be taken."
She said she expects the report to be done within 60 days.
This report was updated from it's original posting to reflect the custody status of Christopher Morales.
Copyright WPRI 12
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