by Efrén Paredes, Jr.
February 10, 2010, marked the third time in two weeks that the Warden at the Oaks Facility authorized the use of chemical agents to be sprayed on prisoners who are housed in the upper B wing of 4 Unit. This is a segregation unit.
During that time, one prisoner attempted suicide, one prisoner went on a 5-day hunger strike, and one prisoner was threatened to be shot by gas balls on the yard. These prisoners all were housed on the same floor. The magnitude of this is amplified by the fact that there are only 24 prisoners housed on this floor.
Rather than seeking to prevent the use of chemical agent attacks on prisoners, it appears the facility has instead increased its use in an effort to send a salient message. That message being, “We don’t care about your complaints or problems. Deal with it or we will use chemical agents on you.”
The use of these chemical agents is very dangerous and potentially lethal. Both prison staff and prisoners know this. When the chemical agent is sprayed, the staff who are in the area wear gas masks. The chemicals enter the air when sprayed and every prisoner housed on the floor is exposed to the harmful effects.
When chemical agents were employed on February 10, the impact was so powerful that after an hour of it being sprayed, staff were still wearing gas masks to walk in the hallway. Even the following day staff who worked 24 hours later were coughing in the hallway from the chemicals still lingering in the air.
For the prisoners housed on the floor the impact was much more serious. Many of them experienced severe chest pains, profuse coughing, sinus drainage, burning and water eyes, chronic sneezing, and some vomiting. They were also all forced to sleep in and breathe this unhealthy air until it cleared up. Several prisoners complained that they experienced serious breathing problems.
To illustrate the careless disregard for the seriousness of this matter, just before staff used the harmful chemical agent on February 10, a prisoner asked a staff member when showers would resume. The staff member responded, “No more showers tonight guys, you’re getting gas instead.”
While this is not the mentality of the majority of staff who work responsibly in the housing unit, it does reflect the view of those outside the housing unit with decision-making power. In one conversation with a prisoner before the chemical agent was sprayed on February 10, the unit sergeant stated, “I’ve been telling them about the [meal] trays being messed up. They don’t listen to me.”
Clearly if unit staff was being ignored by their superiors, prisoners who have grievances or problems have no hope of being acknowledged or respected.
I am housed on this floor with 23 other prisoners being exposed to the chemical agent assaults and I speak from direct experience and observation. I am also among the prisoners who were most severely affected by the February 10 incident.
While supporters of the use of chemical agents will argue that the assaults are justified, in none of the three times the chemical agent was used, did a prisoner harm himself or staff. One of the prisoners was threatened with a chemical assault for having paper partially covering his window.
Prison staff will argue that they are not putting any prisoners at serious risk because they remove prisoners from the unit who have documented conditions of asthma or serious respiratory problems prior to spraying the chemical agents.
The problem with this argument is that every prisoner who suffers from asthma or other respiratory problems may not have documentation. Some prisoners may be allergic to the chemicals in the agent used. It is not known how every person will respond to a chemical that they have not been exposed to before. It could be lethal the first time. One of the prisoners housed on the floor where the chemical agents were used only has one lung.
Rather than seek to justify the use of chemical assaults, prison administrators should seek to find out what is sowing the seeds of discontent among the prisoners and leading them to go on hunger strikes, attempt suicide, and risk chemical assaults.
On February 10, several prisoners on the floor refused to return their dinner meal trays because of ongoing problems with the size of the food portions served, missing food items on the food trays, and other issues with food. Some of the prisoners also refused to allow staff to close their door food slot until an administrator came to the unit to discuss their grievances.
Previously, the complaints of prisoners were ignored daily. Complaints about the very hot temperature of the shower water and cold temperature of the rooms continue to go ignored. It wasn’t until prisoners took matters into their own hands on February 10, that staff began to listen. However, it shouldn’t have had to go that far, and could have been prevented, if staff simply took the myriad complaints seriously.
Unfortunately, the reading level of most prisoners is below the fifth grade. This is a barrier that prevents many of them from articulating their problems or grievances verbally or in writing. Prison administration knows this, but they take no steps to try to communicate effectively. Instead, they attempt to silence prisoners through fear and force.
Trying to make problems disappear through the inhumane use of chemical assaults is a dangerous way to show prisoners about conflict resolution. It is no wonder that some prisoners leave prison feeling that using force or violence is a way to solve problems. It has been reinforced by what they have witnessed prison staff do.
This is an unacceptable manner to rehabilitate prisoners and make them productive members of society upon release. We are a nation that does not promote extremism, torture, or abuse of prisoners. This is the reason that the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons were ordered closed.
If it is wrong to employ terror, extremism, torture, or abuse on enemy combatants in prisons abroad, it is equally wrong to use these tactics against citizens imprisoned domestically. When complaints by prisoners are made, (particularly repeated complaints about the same issues) they should be investigated and resolution should be sought.
The psychological, emotional, and mental trauma caused by the use of this invisible violence must not be overlooked. These are scars that can go undetected for long periods of time. Some prisoners can experience post-traumatic-stress disorder by continued exposure to chemical agent assaults.
Violence in any form (including chemical agent assaults) is never the answer to conflict resolution. If that is the only answer administrators have to solving problems, then their professional judgment is seriously in question and should be the subject of House Corrections Appropriations Committee Hearings.
A few years ago, August 6, 2006, a prisoner died at the hands of staff at a prison in Jackson. Timothy Souder’s death completely changed the Michigan Department of Corrections policy about the use of restraints to strap prisoners to their beds in segregation units.
These restraints had been the source of many complaints for years for a number of obvious reasons. It wasn’t until a prisoner died, as a consequence of their use on him and a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit, that things changed.
This should not have to be the same case with the use of chemical agents assaults on prisoners. One day, someone will eventually die from their use or suffer irreparable health damage. It will have been totally preventable. A critical examination of this issue is necessary by outside agencies or legislature.
It is without question that chemical agent assaults are in direct contravention of the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a civilized society.
In simpler terms, it is synonymous with cruel and unusual punishment. A practice we can not afford to persist.