I have spent 50 years working in correctional settings across the country — starting as a prison guard in Texas and then as a corrections use-of-force expert and court monitor. This I know: Institutional brutality is deeply ingrained and persistent in this country.
Correctional officers routinely employ tasers, stun shields, pepper-ball and gas guns, restraint chairs, expandable batons, attack dogs and even their own fists and feet to subdue inmates. This results in bruises, lacerations, fractured limbs, chemical burns, perforated ear drums, severe concussions and injuries to internal organs. All too often these injuries result in needless death.
Officers are authorized to use necessary and proportionate force to control dangerous inmates. But it happens with frightening frequency, even in response to less threatening behaviors — refusing to immediately hang up a phone, possessing a nuisance contraband, complaining about not receiving visits or privileges or medications. Prison employees also use force to maliciously punish prisoners who anger them.
In death cases I have investigated, the prisoners who died were disproportionately black. Many also had mental impairments. Indeed, Human Rights Watch found that staff disproportionately targeted such prisoners for violence, even when their illnesses prevented them from understanding orders or complying.
In one case, 56-year-old Marvin Booker was arrested in Denver for a failure to appear in court. While in the booking area of the jail, he walked — without permission, apparently — across an open area to retrieve his shoes. An officer grabbed from behind and threw him to the ground. Although he did not actively resist, four officers piled on him, one of whom applied a carotid artery chokehold for more than two minutes while a supervising sergeant applied electric currents with a Taser even though Booker was controlled by the four officers. Booker died in a hospital later that day.
Nick Christie, an agitated and confused 62-year-old man, was jailed in Florida for a nonviolent misdemeanor. Locked in a cell without mental health services, he yelled and banged on the cell door. Deputies used chemical spray on him at least 10 times times in a 36-hour period and used a restraint chair with a mask covering his face to keep him from spitting. He died from cardiac arrest.
Just last year, a 42-year-old Gabriel Angulo Rivera, who had a history of mental health and substance abuse, was detained in a Texas county jail. He began to deteriorate mentally, and officers sought to move him to a padded cell. In the process, he somehow sustained multiple head injuries, rib fractures and other injuries, after which he stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest. He died shortly after at a hospital.
My experience convinces me that — like police — most corrections officers do not use unnecessary or excessive force. Nonetheless, officials in some places turn a blind eye to abuse by rogue officers. In badly run facilities, officers control inmates through punitive violence. In the worst cases, a culture of violence — often race-related — becomes entrenched.
No one knows how many inmates die each year because of staff use of force, but we know the number of deaths merits far more attention than has been given. Correctional systems typically do not gather — much less publish — data on such deaths, and they rarely receive media attention. In 2013, Congress mandated national data gathering, but the process is bogged down and no one expects reliable figures anytime soon.
As with police, we need policies that require correctional officers to attempt de-escalation before using force; to expand training for officers; to limit application of supposedly “non-lethal” chemicals and stun guns, especially on restrained prisoners or those in their cells; and to require officers to intervene to stop excessive force by others.
We need accountability for the misuse of force. Too few officers face sanctions, even for killing a detainee. Internal review too often fails to provide meaningful scrutiny. The testimony of inmate witnesses is discounted, and, as with the police, the “code of silence” among prison staffs helps protect abusive officers. Autopsies and death certificates often ignore the use of force that might have precipitated the death.
In the few instances when employees are criminally prosecuted, they are rarely convicted. Jurors, in my experience, are predisposed to disbelieve confined persons and embrace the sanitized versions of events from defendants.
The problem of brutality behind bars is ultimately a problem of leadership and political will. Elected officials need to insist on change or install leaders who will. And the public needs to demand reform and hold officials accountable.
As a plaintiffs’ attorney said during a class action challenging the use of force in California’s prison system: “The question … is whether we, the people, are free to act lawlessly because the people we brutalize themselves have violated the law. The Constitution answers no. The rule of law enshrined in this country answers no. And in our claim to be a civilized people, we must all answer no.”