Activism

The Scandal of Chemical Weapons in U.S. Prisons

Banned worldwide in war, tear gas is routinely used in U.S. prisons and jails.

Photo Credit: Justin Norman / Shrieking Tree

Originally launched as a tool of trench combat during World War I, tear gas has been used around the world over the past century to enforce colonial rule, quell popular protests and aid in ethnic cleansing of civilians. This “riot control agent” was banned as a “method of war” by the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms control treaty that went into effect in 1997 and now binds nearly 200 countries (although numerous states are in violation). Yet in prisons and jails across the United States, far from any conventional battlefield or public scrutiny, tear gas and other chemical weapons are routinely used against people held captive in enclosed spaces, including solitary confinement.

Now, those forced to endure tear gas attacks while imprisoned in the United States are speaking out. In over 100 letters sent to the War Resisters League since 2013, incarcerated people told of being doused in chemical agents while denied the chance to wash their bodies. Individuals testified that they were left with burns, scars and memories of agony and suffocation.

“They didn’t hit me with the gas until the fight was over and I was already in handcuffs and shackles,” a woman incarcerated by the Colorado Department of Corrections wrote in a 2014 letter viewed by AlterNet. “The captain sprayed me directly in the face. I immediately began to choke, snot, tears, and saliva spewing from my face. It felt like I was breathing fire. A couple minutes later I began to vomit… I was not allowed to wash the chemical off until three days later. So for those three days the chemicals continued to burn my flesh.”

With less than 10 days left until Donald Trump takes the White House, human rights campaigners are citing this mounting testimony to demand an end to the use of tear gas in U.S. prisons and jails. They argue that the deployment of chemical weapons of any kind against imprisoned people constitutes militarization and torture. Representatives of WRL, Witness Against Torture, Black Movement Law Project and other organizations brought their demands to the doorstep of the Department of Justice on Monday, staging a press conference and delivering a petition with over 13,000 signatures. Addressing Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, the petition implores: “We urge you to immediately order investigations, make recommendations concerning, and take action against human rights abuses on prisoners involving tear gas/chemical weapons on both state and federal levels.” Yates did not reply to a request for comment from AlterNet.

“We’re in a political moment now where law enforcement violence could potentially increase with the Trump administration,” Tara Tabassi, national organizer for WRL, told AlterNet. “Folks in prison don’t have the platforms we have on the outside; they can’t go to the Department of Justice or talk to the press. So it is our responsibility to recognize the bravery and defiance of those writing to us.”

Profiting from chemical weapons in prisons

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes tear gas, a term used interchangeably with “riot control agents,” as "chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.” As Daniel Moattar explained in April 2016 in a Nation article that cited the testimony submitted to WRL, "In the United States, 'tear gas' is usually an umbrella term for one of two compounds: particulate CS, an aerosolized powder that hits the body’s pain receptors directly, or oleoresin capsicum, alias 'pepper spray,' an oil that causes excruciating pain on contact, especially around the eyes, nose and mouth."

Campaigners calling for an end to chemical weapons in prisons and jails face an industry whose tentacles span the world. WRL has identified four key companies that sell tear gas to prisons in the United States: Sabre, Combined Tactical Systems, Sage and Safariland. Notably, subsidiaries of Safariland have shipped tear gas and crowd control weapons to governments known for violently suppressing protests, from Bahrain to Israel.

In addition, tear gas produced by the company’s affiliate, Defense Technology, was deployed during the brutal U.S. crackdown on Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson in 2014. One Safariland video advertising OC Aerosol Projectors shows a corrections officer gassing a prisoner in the face, while the man tries to shield his eyes with his hands.

Severe pain all over my body’

While companies advertise these products as “less lethal,” evidence shows that they can and do kill. The World Health Organization notes, “Tear gas (e.g. CS or CN), usually a harassing agent, can be lethal if a person is exposed to a large quantity in a small closed space.”

Even when deployed outdoors, tear gas can take human life. In just one example, Physicians for Human Rights noted in 2012, "The Bahrain government's indiscriminate use of tear gas as a weapon has resulted in the maiming, blinding, and even killing of civilian protesters, and must stop at once while the government reassesses the use of such toxic chemical agents."

The deployment of tear gas in enclosed spaces, such as prisons, adds additional danger. The CDC notes, “Long-lasting exposure or exposure to a large dose of riot control agent, especially in a closed setting, may cause severe effects such as the following: Blindness; Glaucoma (a serious eye condition that can lead to blindness); immediate death due to severe chemical burns to the throat and lungs; respiratory failure possibly resulting in death.”

“As quickly as possible, wash any riot control agent from your skin with large amounts of soap and water,” advises the CDC. Yet, incarcerated people report they are denied this opportunity, as illustrated in the following testimony submitted in 2014 by Fred D. Douty, while incarcerated at the Mt, Olive Correctional Complex in West Virginia:

“I was experiencing irritation of the eyes and throat due to the fact that two people were sprayed less than one hour ago, and the excessive amount of chemicals used. I voiced my opinion to the guards that they cannot spray people for requesting to speak to mental health, interalia, that they had no right to shut my water off because I didn’t do anything wrong. A guard became asperity and approached my door, without any warning or provocation he placed a rod under the door and sprayed me with a chemical agent for 5-7 seconds. I was left with no way to alleviate the extreme amount of pain, but to splash toilet water on my face, I was left in the cell for 40-50 minutes and as I pleaded for help, a guard came to my door with a 35 or 40 mm riot control shotgun and threatened to shoot me unless I shut up.

The next day I awoke to severe pain all over my body, as I had large burn blisters on my legs, thighs, torso, arms and face. After a few days I was seen by a nurse and diagnosed with first degree chemical burns. For two weeks a yellowish discharge flowed from these wounds. The guards did come and take pictures of my wounds after several days of protests about my treatment.”

While the Department of Justice did not return requests for information about how many people have died due to tear gas in the prisons it oversees, media reports, lawsuits and personal testimony indicate that such killings are not unheard of. According to a lawsuit filed in 2016, Randall Jordan-Aparo, a 27-year-old man who was incarcerated in Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010 died after being repeatedly gassed and beaten. An investigation conducted in 2014 by the Miami Herald found that the man “was subjected to 600 grams of chemical agents in a confined space,” including tear gas.

Afrika Lockett, who is active with the prison abolition organization Black and Pink, told AlterNet that while she was incarcerated at the Pontiac Correctional Center in Illinois in 2013 and 2014, “they used tear gas to get inmates out of cells if they refused to move. You have inmates who have asthma, and it affected them.” She said she had heard second-hand that at least one incarcerated person had died due to tear gas, saying, “I consider tear gas torture.” The Pontiac Correctional Center did not immediately return a request for comment.

In a January 10 letter to Deputy Attorney General Yates, Margaret Huang, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, sounded the alarm on use of tear gas in prisons. “The use of chemical irritants in detention is inherently open to abuse, as it can be used in an arbitrary or indiscriminate manner that may, depending on the circumstances, constitute torture or other ill treatment,” states the letter, which was emailed to AlterNet.

This suffering is being inflicted by weapons designed for war. Sven-Eric Jordt, a professor of pharmacology at Yale University School of Medicine, observed in an interview with the National Geographic in June 2013: “Tear gas under the Geneva Convention is characterized as a chemical warfare agent, and so it is precluded for use in warfare, but it is used very frequently against civilians. That's very illogical.”

‘We don’t deserve it’

In a 2009 review of its use of “less lethal” weapons, the DOJ noted: “In addition to batons and pepper spray, the BOP uses aerial dispersion rounds,  the PepperBall system, rubber projectiles, StingBalls, tear gas, bean bag rounds, and electronic custody control belts.”

Lawmakers are successfully expanding chemical weapons use in prisons across the country. In March of 2016, President Barack Obama signed into law the the Williams Correctional Officers Protection Act, backed by U.S. senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), which mandates the Bureau of Prisons to distribute pepper spray to corrections officers in medium- and high-security prisons. “Moving forward Congress must redouble its efforts to ensure our corrections officers are safe on the job,” said Sen. Casey in a press statement championing the bill.

“It is striking that it is still legal and common practice to use weapons against civilians engaged in political protests in cities like Ferguson and Charlotte,” Nathan Sheard of the Black Movement-Law Project told AlterNet. “But it is even more striking the way we’ve heard of its use in prisons through the United States, against people who are isolated in their cells, who are shackled, who have medical conditions.”

In their letters, prisoners testified that they believe this practice is allowed to continue because it happens behind closed doors, against people deprived of their freedom. Roger Smith wrote while incarcerated at the Mt. Olive Correctional Complex in West Virginia, “I have medical documents that say I [had] 1st degree chemical burns due to being sprayed. I have scars from those burns. I am housed in lock up in a single cell and I was not a risk or threat to myself, staff or other inmates.”

“I think that there is a huge problem with the outside world not really knowing what truly goes on inside of a prison,” Smith continued. “Most people either don’t believe it because it is coming from a convicted criminal, or most just don’t care and turn a blind eye to it all. I don't think it’s anyone’s job to harass and further punish someone just because they are locked up. It’s not fair, and we don’t deserve it.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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