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Guards vs. Inmates: Mistreatment and Abuse in the US Prison System


Prison abuse isn't going anywhere, despite federal mandates and prisoners' rights activism.

After 38-year-old Terrill Thomas died from profound dehydration while in solitary confinement in a Milwaukee County Jail cell, fellow inmates reported that he had been begging correctional officers for something to drink for a week. An investigating detective testified that according to an inmate, “Thomas asked every [guard] for water because the water in his cell was shut off.” Ultimately, on the seventh day, Thomas went quiet, slumped over, and died on April 24 2016.

The investigation into Thomas’s death is one of the many lenses magnifying the horrific abuse that is all too common in American jails and prisons today. Degrading treatment of inmates continues to occur across the country with distressing frequency. “Prison is awful, and it’s meant to be dehumanizing and isolating. It’s meant to take people out of their communities, all in the name of ‘reform, rehabilitation, public safety,’” says Oamshri Amarasingham, the Policy Director at the ACLU of Maine. “But keeping people locked up forever does not promote public safety in any way. People are coming out so damaged, because it’s so damaging to be in prison—so you’re creating problems that did not [previously] exist.” Mental health problems, in particular, develop in prison. And because of a lack of mental health services for former inmates, a lot of those people end up in jail or prison yet again. “It is certainly cyclical,” says Amarasingham.

A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch found that mentally ill inmates across the United States are subjected to routine physical abuse by guards. The 127-page report found that staff have “broken prisoners’ jaws, noses, ribs; left them with lacerations requiring stitches, second-degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs.” Inmates were even doused with chemical sprays, shocked with stun guns, and strapped to chairs or beds for days. In many instances, as in the case of Terrill Thomas, this use of brute force led to inmate death, though the number of casualties is unclear in part because jails and prisons classify them in various ways, commonly not reporting the abuse.

“Jails and prisons can be dangerous, damaging, and even deadly places for men and women with mental health problems,” said Jamie Fellner, the senior adviser at Human Rights Watch who wrote the 2015 report. “Force is used against prisoners even when, because of their illness, they cannot understand or comply with staff orders.” The National Inmate Survey conducted by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that within a 12-month period, 4.4 percent of prison and jail inmates reported being sexually victimized. The Bureau’s definition of sexual abuse includes verbal as well as physical contact, but verbal sexual abuse is extremely difficult to prove and rarely leads to the recovery of damages.

“I think the violence that happens in prisons depends on the situation. It’s all about who has the power. Or who doesn’t,” says Meagan Sway, attorney and Justice Fellow at the ACLU of Maine. She explains that physical abuse, mainly sexual, is the most common and powerful tool of abuse in prison. “Sex is used as a way to establish dominance and power. It’s essential to the hierarchy of dominance.”

Guards also wield violence indirectly, by ignoring physical assaults by fellow prisoners. “In adult prisons there’s guard-on-inmate violence or ‘casual violence,’ like slapping, but there's also letting inmates attack each other and not intervening. In adult systems it’s really crowded, especially in private prisons where the number of guards is a lot lower,” says Sway. “And that’s a way of perpetrating violence even if you are not actually doing it."

Challenges to Prisoners’ Rights

For inmates and the groups who represent them, achieving justice in the courts and preventing prisoner abuse are monumental challenges. A federal law enacted in 1996 called the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires prisoners to clear substantial hurdles before being permitted to sue the Department of Corrections, prisons, or jails for assault or civil rights violations. If a prisoner acts out too much, they can lose their right to file a grievance or a complaint. And before a prisoner is allowed to file a lawsuit in court, they must first take their complaints through all levels of the prison’s or jail’s grievance system, complying with all deadlines and other procedural rules. If and when they do so, they must come up with attorney fees. Many inmates hesitate to file grievances in the first place because they’re afraid of retaliation from prison staff and guards, who have a lot of discretion over their movement. Complaining prisoners can lose their access to the inmate library, where they can consult law books and other legal materials that may help them figure out how to exercise the few rights that they do have. “Basically the point of that PLRA act was to make it harder for prisoners to get into court,” says Amarasingham. “It’s designed to make everything really hard for prisoners to access their rights.”

Those who manage to make it into the courts encounter blatant bias and discrimination. “People assume that [inmates] are making things up or they’re lying,” explains Amarasingham, “so they want to put them back in prison.” According to the language of the PLRA, even if a prisoner wins a case, they may not recover compensation for “mental or emotional injury” unless they make a “prior showing of physical injury.” But not all scars are visible. According to the Marshall Project and a study done by a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, inmates have lost more cases since the PLRA was passed over two decades ago.

Many inmates hesitate to file grievances in the first place because they’re afraid of retaliation from prison staff and guards.

A federal law that is supposed to protect inmates is the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003. In 2012 the Department of Justice released the final federal regulations implementing this act, the purpose of which is to “provide for the analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape in Federal, State, and local institutions and to provide information, resources, recommendations and funding to protect individuals from prison rape.” Under the PREA, a prisoner has a right to be accompanied by an advocate when they file a complaint. It also offers information, training, and technical assistance to prison administrators, and produces its own annual report to Congress.

But PREA is optional. If a state is PREA-compliant, it’s supposed to conduct audits, collect data, and enact strict policies to protect prisoners. But only 13 states are currently compliant. “Some states, like Texas, have decided they don’t want to comply,” Amarasingham says. But compliance is attached to funding, so if a state is non-compliant, it loses federal money. “I’m pretty sure Texas just said, ’Fuck it, we don’t want the money.’”

Systematic Problems

Even with these laws and acts of protection in place and a solid commitment by activists to prevent violence in prison, it will undoubtedly continue to exist, for a variety of reasons. For one, guards aren’t exactly making bank—the average hourly rate for a corrections officer is $16.54 per hour, and they tend to receive sparse training and even less emotional support. Prisons are overcrowded, often packed beyond their capacity. “Sometimes, even the guards who perpetrate the violence and harm aren’t quite at fault,” says Sway. “You’re not trained very much, then you’re thrown into this [powerful role] and it's scary and violent. It can be traumatic for the people enforcing the orders to observe or take part in violence.”

In a recent in-depth piece for Mother Jones, investigative journalist Shane Bauer spent four months working as a prison guard in Louisiana (for $9 per hour) and eventually found himself feeling violent, fearful, and wanting to inflict his rage on inmates. So it’s not uncommon for guards to turn off their empathy and compassion. When recalling Bauer’s article Sway noted, “Mass incarceration is a system. Part of dehumanizing [inmates] is to make [guards] feel better about hurting other people.”

The continuing violence in prisons is pretty grim—but while we may feel powerless to change the prison system, there are things we can do to break the cycle. Our main job, says Amarasingham, is to stay alert, and to vote. “Pay attention to incarceration policies, pay attention to who the DA is that is running for election. Most DAs run unopposed, and most are extremely conservative and think that it’s their job to put people in prison. [But it’s] not their job. It’s their job to seek justice. But often they over-charge, which just means people end up filling the beds in prison.” And sadly, unless things change dramatically, far too many of these people will go from filling beds to filling coffins.

Illustration by Cam Cottrill

Design by Dana Kim

Mira Ptacin is the 2017 recipient of the Maine Literary Award, the author of the memoir Poor Your Soul and the forthcoming book The In-Betweens. She teaches memoir writing at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, ME, and lives on Peaks Island. Twitter: @miraptacin