In Bahrain, it took an asthmatic man’s life. Bahrain bought it from South Korea, where it’s been used on dissidents for decades. In Egypt, it choked 37 men to death in the back of a police truck. Egypt got it from the USA. It’s tear gas, and it’s becoming a staple of life in American prisons.
Tear gas is mostly known in the United States as a “crowd control weapon” for dispersing unwanted demonstrators. Beloved of US SWAT teams and riot cops, ubiquitous in police arsenals, it played a key role in suppressing civilians during the protests of the Arab Spring. From Ferguson in 2014 to Rio de Janeiro this year, it’s become notorious for its risks and health effects: miscarriages, lung damage, blunt-force trauma, asphyxiation. So why are we using it on captives?
“They started out by using MK9, which is a form of pepper spray. They put a fogger attachment on it, to pipe it into the cell. Then they used a mixture of OC and CS. Then they fired beanbag rounds into the locked cell with a shotgun. Then they upped it to Sting-Ball grenades. They threw two grenades into the cell—a cell that’s approximately 80 square feet. They did all of this back to back to back, without stopping. And then they go in and they use physical force, and they put him in a restraint chair for eight hours.”
That’s how Mountain State Justice staff attorney Aaron Moss describes one inmate’s experience—which he saw on video—at West Virginia’s maximum-security Mount Olive Correctional Complex. Internal documents from Mount Olive, reviewed by The Nation, confirm that its head warden has declared “martial law” in parts of the facility, superseding standard use-of-force regulations by decree. His declaration authorized the use of “less-lethal” weapons, including grenade launchers, at staff discretion.
The War Resisters League, through a letter-writing campaign run in its prison newsletter, obtained testimony from 18 states on the use of tear gas and pepper spray against inmates—in men’s and women’s prisons, maximum- and medium- security facilities, across the country. For unrestrained use of force on restrained inmates, Mount Olive might be the most well-documented example.
“The guards have said under this protocol they are free to use chemical agents at their own discretion—5-7 people are sprayed a week,” says Fred Douty, a Mount Olive inmate, in a letter to WRL. Douty himself was sprayed on at least one occasion; he says a prison nurse diagnosed him days later with first-degree chemical burns.
According to Roger Smith, also being held at Mount Olive, “In the last 2 years, over 100 inmates have been sprayed with chemicals in lock-up” for what Smith calls “minor rule infractions.” “The staff here,” he wrote in a second letter, “are overjoyed that the warden and major declared ‘Martial Law’ in our seg. units.” A Mountain State Justice legal petition recounts an instance of an inmate’s being sprayed in four-point restraints: “The justification given for spraying the inmate while fully restrained was that the inmate was ‘fidgeting and looking around the dayroom area.’” A different inmate “was sprayed in the face with chemical agent while cuffed behind his back, shackled and chained to a table.”