Daniel Moattar, writing for The Nation, and Sarah Lazare, a journalist at AlterNet, report 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 200 nations, Lazare reports, “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, blindness, and, in severe cases, death.
Since 2013, the War Resisters League has been documenting the use of tear gas in prisons. As Moattar reports, 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 summarizes inmates’ reports of “burns, scars and memories of agony and suffocation.” Some report being denied treatment or even being allowed to rinse their eyes after being subject to tear gas.
The War Resisters League also documents companies—including Sabre, CTS, Sage, and Safariland—that sell tear gas to prisons in forms “designed specifically for ‘enclosed spaces.’”
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 reports. 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. As Moattar documents in his article, through private industries, 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. 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 an article from the Miami Herald which focused on the case of a 27-year-old inmate, Randall Jordan-Aparo, who died at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010 after corrections officers allegedly tortured, gassed and beat him.
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.
Daniel Moattar, “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/.
Student Researchers: Cynthia Alvarez, Veronica Esquivez, and William Ha (Citrus College)
Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)