The United States has over one million people locked up in jails and prisons across the country and just over 4,300 people behind bars died in local jails and state prisons in 2012, according to federal officials.
On paper most of the deaths are linked to suicide and illness, such as heart disease, but recent disclosures about some 360 deaths in Florida jails in one year alone tell a much different story than the one told in statistics and federal reports.
Those stories contain horrible allegations, horror tales of a Florida man, a Black man, intentionally put in a scalding hot shower until his skin literally falls off of his body. Other horror stories outside of Florida include a death row inmate stomped and beaten to death by prison guards, his testicles crushed and boot prints marking his face.
Then there was the Black woman whose traumatized body was damaged as if hit by a car or thrown from a tall building–she had only been taken out of solitary confinement. But the day before, four male officers had extracted her from a cell. Perhaps she beat herself to death.
There are inmates found in feces or blood despite begging for help or pleading to see a doctor. Prisoners unable to care for themselves were cared for by other prisoners as guards ignored cries for help. Meanwhile oppressive Texas summer heat was blamed for the deaths of 14 prisoners since 2007 and a lawsuit finally forced the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice to make some changes. “If TDCJ officers locked a dog in a hot car, they would go to prison for animal cruelty. … Doing this to human beings, no matter what crime they were convicted of, is unconscionable,” said a former Texas Civil Rights Project lawyer.
According to federal statistics, inmates who perished usually died within seven days of coming into a prison or jail. Most people in jail aren’t guilty of anything, they are only accused and likely too poor to make bail. Others sit in jail because of minor crimes–nothing that would warrant a death sentence.
There are inmates who have died begging for heart medication, asthma drugs, insulin for their diabetes or drugs to quiet the voices inside their heads. They die from cancer, AIDS, pneumonia, from being pepper sprayed while handcuffed or after being tased.
When a family is blessed enough to pursue a civil lawsuit and win, the penalties–though they may amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars–don’t seem to do much to deter anything or anyone. Rarely do these settlements result in the admission of guilt though states and local jurisdictions agree to payouts following reports of deaths and abuses.
Virtually no one is keeping charge of the keepers and no one is watching the watchers.
According to managing editor of Prison Legal News Alex Friedmann, a publication dedicated to exposing and correcting criminal justice system failures, guards beating inmates to death is not infrequent. But deaths also come because prison staffers refuse to provide inmates with medical or psychiatric care and ignore pleas for help. Suicidal inmates aren’t watched and even non-lethal weapons like tasers or restraint chairs can become deadly, he said.
While Florida has garnered recent attention, the problems and the scalding death of Darren Rainey, locked in a hot shower, is not alone in these abuses. In Florida, Mr. Friedmann said around 360 inmates have died in the past year. In Arizona, a woman was placed in an outdoor holding cell with no water or toilet in the sun. She baked to death.
With very little oversight of prison operations, mainly internal discipline, and a lot of prosecutorial discretion, charges of wrongdoing, let alone murder, go nowhere. Indictments are rare and penalties, probation or fines, are lax.
“Pretty much nobody is watching the watchers in terms of those who are watching prisoners,” Mr. Friedmann said. In many states like Tennessee, where prisons monitor themselves, the state department of investigation has no oversight and a legislative oversight committee was disbanded, he noted. The only person the department is accountable to is the governor who appoints the commissioner of corrections.
Accurate reporting of prisoner deaths is part of the problem, rarely is a report going to say an inmate was beaten to death by a guard. Likewise if a person complains of chest pains, is ignored and dies, the death is likely to be reported as a natural death from heart attack–with no mention that staff were informed and refused to provide medical care, Mr. Friedmann said.
Suicides are often handled the same way.
An inmate who kills himself is logged as a suicide, even if the guard watches the inmate slit his wrists and walks away, or hears the inmate threaten to kill himself or watches an inmate fashion a noose, Mr. Friedmann said.
“In my opinion, prison privatization has made our system worse. It has perpetuated our system of mass incarceration. If there were no private prisons we would have no room to house approximately 130,000 people who are currently housed in private prisons nationwide,” he said. “We would have had to come to some other resolution. We would have had to reform our prison policies, our sentencing laws. We would have had to reform who we put in prison for what reasons and for how long.”
Instead of solving the problem, the prison population has grown and the abuses are higher–even if the number has increased simply because there are more people in custody. But the abuses and deaths persist because no one cares and no one is held accountable. “People are not sent to prison to be killed or to be neglected until they die, due to medical neglect or mental health neglect. They’re simply there to be held according to the court’s ruling until they’re ready to be released. So prison officials who abuse their authority and are abusive toward prisoners are committing crimes equally as bad as many of the prisoners committed to prison in the first place. So they also need to be prosecuted and brought before the judge and adjudicated,” said Mr. Friedmann. We agree.