A Eugene man serving an eight-year sentence for robbery filed a lawsuit last week against the Department of Corrections, claiming he was severely burned by a broken industrial tortilla maker that had been repaired more than 120 times. 

He says after he complained, he was then put in segregation then housed with a violent schizophrenic nicknamed "The Beast."

Chris Shabazz-Wimberly, 39, worked for months in the kitchen at Two Rivers Correctional Institute in Umatilla, pulling tortillas from a van-sized tortilla machine, he said in a federal suit filed Friday in federal court in Portland after exhausting his state-level remedies. 

The tortilla machine allegedly leaked natural gas and periodically exploded in blooms of fire. The Department of Corrections declined to comment on the case.

Shabazz-Wimberly says he complained in May 2012 about being locked in a room with the machine, which caused others headaches and which he feared could explore and injure him. He said the pilot light would go out, but allow natural gas to leak into the secure room.

A supervisor directed staff to leave the kitchen door ajar when an officer wasn't present to assure inmates could escape in the event of a malfunction. But the plant manager said the precaution was unnecessary; the building's ventilation system would suck up the leaking gas, he said.

Shabazz-Wimberly describes the machine as "a giant box with three windowpanes. On the inside are four rotating plates heated by a natural gas line and pilot. The machine operates at about 400 degrees. Tortilla routinely fall off the plates and require the operator to open the panes and retrieve the tortillas with a skinny stick.” 

Each windowpane is rigged with a sensor to assure the pilot goes out when someone opens a window. But in August 2012 staff disabled the sensor, he alleges, but failed to post a sign alerting inmates who worked with the machine.

That month Shabazz-Wimberly opened a window and reached in to catch a fallen tortilla, he says. Just then the pilot turned itself back on, burning his arm and hand. He ran around the room screaming, and the guards outside had gone on break, he alleges. 

Shabazz-Wimberly was treated for second-degree burns, but during the post-incident review the manager of the section refused to photograph his burns, he says. An ensuing report said that Shabazz-Wimberly had failed to follow correct safety protocol.

His subsequent insurance claim from SAIF Corporation was denied because "No medical treatment was received," the incident was not witnessed by anyone other than the inmate and he wasn't wearing protective sleeves.

Shabazz-Wimberly alleges that after he complained, officers retaliated against him by putting him in segregation then reassigning him to a cell with a violent schizophrenic sexual assailant nicknamed "The Beast."