#19 Inmates and Activists Protest Chemical Weapons in US Prisons and Jails

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Daniel Moattar, writing for the Nation, and Sarah Lazare, a journalist at AlterNet, reported how chemical weapons, including several types of tear gas, are being used against prisoners in the United States, despite the fact that the international Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 bans their use in warfare. Despite the arms control treaty that now binds nearly two hundred nations, Lazare reported, “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.” Tear gas is known to cause skin and respiratory irritation, intense pain, blindness, and, in severe cases, death.

Since 2013, the War Resisters League has been documenting the use of tear gas in prisons. As Moattar reported, letters from inmates sent to the War Resisters League document the use of tear gas and pepper spray against inmates—in men’s and women’s prisons, including maximum- and medium-security facilities—in eighteen states across the country. Lazare summarized inmates’ reports of “burns, scars and memories of agony and suffocation.” Some reported being denied treatment or even being allowed to rinse their eyes after being subject to tear gas.

As a result of inmates’ letters, activists have taken action. Seeking to end the use of tear gas in US prisons and jails, activists argue that “the deployment of chemical weapons of any kind against imprisoned people constitutes militarization and torture,” Lazare reported. In early January 2017, shortly before the inauguration of Donald Trump, representatives of the War Resisters League, Witness Against Torture, Black Movement Law Project, and other organizations brought their demands to the Department of Justice, where they held a press conference and delivered a petition with over 13,000 signatures to then–deputy attorney general Sally Q. Yates.

Tear gases and pepper sprays are lucrative commodities for those who produce them. The War Resisters League also documented companies—including Sabre, Combined Tactical Systems (CTS), Sage, and Safariland—that sell tear gas to prisons in forms “designed specifically for ‘enclosed spaces.’” As Moattar documented in his article, through private companies such as Sabre and Safariland, the US “remains the single largest manufacturer” of CS, one of the two compounds used in most forms of tear gas. “Producers of tear gas and pepper spray worry more about finding new markets than navigating the law,” Moattar wrote. “Even if existing restrictions on the use of force were enforced, the direct use of pain-inducing chemicals on prisoners, including inmates restrained or in solitary, is still minimally regulated and broadly legal.”

There is little corporate news coverage on chemical weapons being used against inmates in US prisons and jails. What coverage there is tends to frame incidents as local and isolated, as in a September 2016 article in the Miami Herald which focused on the case of a twenty-seven-year-old inmate, Randall Jordan-Aparo, who died at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010 after corrections officers allegedly tortured, gassed, and beat him.

Daniel Moattar, “Prisons are Using Military-Grade Tear Gas to Punish People,” Nation, April 28, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/prisons-are-using-military-grade-tear-gas-to-punish-inmates/.

Sarah Lazare, “The Scandal of Chemical Weapons in U.S. Prisons,” AlterNet, January 11, 2017, http://www.alternet.org/activism/scandal-chemical-weapons-us-prisons.

Student Researchers: Cynthia Alvarez, Veronica Esquivez, and William Ha (Citrus College)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)