Social Issues

Chatham County sheriff’s deputy fired, arrested for pepper spraying restrained inmate

Footage released by the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office on Monday shows an inmate in an orange jumpsuit strapped to a chair, unable to move his arms or legs. And it shows a deputy, whose face had just been spit on, addressing him.

“I’ll teach you a lesson,” says the deputy, identified as Sgt. Charlesetta Hawkins.

Sheriff John Wilcher says he fired Hawkins and charged her with cruelty to an inmate for what came next.

Hawkins, a 17-year veteran of the department, is shown walking up to Jonathan Mahone, who is restrained in a chair, and firing pepper spray in his face twice during the April 18 incident.

“Do you understand me?” she asks as she sprays Mahone. “Now you do it again.”

About four minutes had passed since the seated Mahone spit in her face, since she’d first asked for a can of pepper spray and said, “I promise you’re getting ready to cry.”

And it would be about another 15 minutes before she appears on camera wiping the pepper spray off Mahone’s face. In the interim, he can be seen occasionally shaking his head back and forth and shouting or cackling.

Mahone, who has been in jail since Oct. 28 on charges of aggravated assault and aggravated battery, had just destroyed the sprinkler head in his cell, an action that flooded three cells, said Pete Nichols, sheriff’s department spokesman.

Mahone was taken from his cell and strapped into a restraint chair — a device that prevents a person from moving anything but his head.

Mahone is being charged with destruction of government property for the vandalism and assault for spitting in Hawkins’ face. But those actions didn’t warrant Hawkins’ response, Wilcher said.

“It is assault, and he’s going to be charged with that, but there’s no reason for her to pepper spray him when he’s in full restraint sitting in a restraint chair and can’t get up and can’t move,” Wilcher said during a news conference.

The sheriff said department policy is to stand beside an inmate who is in a restraint chair rather than in front of him or her as Hawkins did before Mahone spit on her. He said that an internal investigation was launched after jail video of the incident came to light on Wednesday. Wilcher called it “a sad day” and said the decision to arrest one of his own officers was tough but necessary.

“I’m not going to tolerate an inmate being abused, and I’m not going to tolerate my officers being abused by an inmate, and she abused this inmate who was perfectly content being strapped in that chair,” Wilcher said.

Hawkins was the ranking officer on scene at the time and was the sergeant in charge of the unit, Wilcher said, adding that she had ample training and “knows what to do and what not to do.”

“I think that she was just in a state that she was upset because the guy spit on her and just lost her cool,” he said.

The video shows Hawkins escorting a nurse over to the restrained Mahone about 6:48 p.m., apparently to check his vital signs and the straps on the chair. That’s when he can be seen quickly moving his head forward and spitting. Immediately, Hawkins tells someone to “go get me a can of spray.”

Mahone can be heard saying, “You can’t spray me.”

“I’m getting ready to show you I can,” Hawkins can be heard saying. “I bet you will never make that mistake again.”

Four minutes later, she appears to make good on her threat.

She returns with a second deputy a few minutes later to allow a nurse to draw Mahone’s blood, Nichols said, but it wasn’t until 7:07 p.m. that she wipes his face down with milk to neutralize the burn.

Hawkins and Mahone were still in jail on Monday, and it was not immediately clear whether they had attorneys.

“(Hawkins) was cooperative, and my understanding is she thought she’d done nothing wrong,” Wilcher said.

The Chatham County jail came under the national spotlight early last year after the in-custody death of Mathew Ajibade, a 21-year-old college student who got into a fight with deputies and had a Taser used on him while in a restraint chair. Fallout resulted in a slew of firings and the eventual prosecution of two deputies and a contract nurse. Wilcher was sworn in as sheriff early this month after winning a special election to replace the late Al St Lawrence, who was sheriff when Ajibade died.

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