Facing Tear Gas: Chemical Weapons Abuse in US Prisons

Tear gas in a prison cell


A longer version of this article was first published on TruthOut.org - thanks to Sarah Robinson for abridging

Multiple letters from Mount Olive Correctional Complex (MOCC) in West Virginia, report at least 5-7 imprisoned people are sprayed by tear gas, pepper spray or other chemical agents each week.  First-hand testimonies refer to the guards' lax references to the frequent use of these chemicals as "bug spray."

One person reports getting sprayed after kicking a door and breaking a window because guards ignored his emergency call button. He had not received his diabetic snack bag, which he had been requesting for four hours. In a letter he writes to the War Resisters League he describes that, "I have severe hypoglycemia at nighttime which can result in my death… they opened the beanhole and used a canister of OC [oleoresin capsicum gas] spray on my stomach and testicles intentionally!" OC spray, commonly referred to as pepper spray, is derived from capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers. According to his letter, the spray dispersed to the top tier of the ventilation system impacting at least seven others imprisoned in the MOCC.

Another person living inside MOCC was sprayed after suffering severe symptoms of paranoia. He writes that he was diagnosed with Schizophrenia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental illnesses prior to incarceration. On October 1st 2012, when he began having a paranoia-induced anxiety attack, others housed in his area pushed the emergency call button. While he was hallucinating and building a web with sheets that he tore, he was not hostile to anyone or posing a threat. He writes of guards opening the food slot to deploy a 12 oz canister of Phantom -- an OC spray manufactured by Sabre Red Security Equipment Corporation. Shortly after, another 12 oz canister was deployed. Ten minutes after, a 6 oz canister was deployed. Later, a 9 oz canister of Clearout was sprayed -- a brand of aerosol grenade containing both OC and CS [orthochlorbenzalmalononitrile] gasses made by Aerko International. CS gas (named after B.B. Corson and R.W. Stoughton, the American scientists who discovered it) is a tear gas whose fine white powder contains several cyanide functional groups that was developed at Britain's secretive military science park Porton Down. Each time a canister was deployed, the food slot was shut, enclosing the cell. He and another person who witnessed the incident both wrote that they believe the guards intended to kill him.

Another letter describes nother incarcerated man getting sprayed for speaking out on behalf of two people who requested mental health support but instead were tear gassed. The water supply had been cut off in his unit. He was already experiencing irritation in his eyes and throat from the two other men being excessively sprayed less than an hour before. He advocated for those who had already been sprayed and expressed to the guards that they had no right to shut off the water. He writes that shortly after a rod was placed under his door, and he was sprayed for 5-7 seconds through the bean hole. With nothing to alleviate the pain, he splashed toilet water on his skin. He was left in the enclosed cell for 40-50 minutes. When he begged for help, he was faced with a riot-control shot gun; "The next day I awoke to severe pain all over my body, as I had large burn blisters on my legs, thighs, torso, arms and face. After a few days, I was seen by a nurse and diagnosed with first-degree chemical burns. For two weeks, a yellowish discharge flowed from these wounds." Robert, another person imprisoned at MOCC, similarly wrote of receiving first-degree burns from secondary exposure after someone else was sprayed in response to a mental health incident.

These are only a few excerpts from the testimonies written in over 100 letters sent to War Resisters League from people incarcerated inside US Prisons regarding abuse of what guards call "bug spray." Amongst the myriad of human rights violations and abuses occurring daily in prisons across the United States, the use of tear-gas, pepper spray and other aerial chemical weapons is a frequent invisibilized abuse. Chemical weapons spraying as an enforcement tactic in US prisons is often in response to minor infractions, people struggling with mental health issues, people advocating for their rights, and most often occurs in enclosed spaces.  While tear gas is legal for domestic use, it is banned from use in warfare by international law -- a double standard in desperate need of elimination.

What Is Tear Gas?

Tear gases, counter intuitively, are not actually gases, but solid particles dispersed through the air via aerosol. Developed and used in World War I, tear gases are nerve agents that specifically activate pain-sensing neurons. Despite being distributed by US companies with names like Nonlethal Technologies and AmTech Less Lethal, tear gases are far from benign irritants. Rather, evidence shows that they are dangerous,potentially lethal, chemical agents as evidenced by the 2010 death of Randall Jordan-Aparo in Florida's Franklin Correctional Institution after guards blasted tear gas through his food slot. Tear gasses are so dangerous, in fact, that they are outlawed for use during wartime under the Chemical Weapons Convention and 1925 Geneva Protocol.

Treatments for Tear Gas Poisoning:

While flushing with water can decontaminate some tear gas exposure, sinisterly, use of water can also exacerbate the pain especially when exposed to the highly toxic Dibenzoxazepine-based CR tear gas and other types of chemical agents.

Many groups outside US Prisons who face state repression have gathered their own methods of addressing tear gas exposure. … Persons incarcerated in the US, however, have little access to these responses or protections. There are a few points shared on the International News Safety Institute (INSI) website, however, that people enduring in prisons can keep in mind when sprayed by tear gas or pepper spray.

  • If you have no protection, cover your mouth and nose with cloth or clothing to protect your airway (keep in mind the outside of your clothes are likely to be contaminated).
  • Keeping your arms outstretched will help CS gas to come off your clothing.
  • Try to get to high ground -- most teargases are heavier than air, so the highest concentrations tend to sit nearer to the ground. Do not crouch.
  • Remember that the gas will infuse clothing for many months; so any clothing that may have been contaminated should be immediately washed several times or discarded.
  • Many of these agents come in the form of crystals, which react with water. Using small amounts of water (such as a wet towel or shirt) immediately after exposure to CS gas is likely to reactivate these crystals and may prolong the effects. Any exposed skin should be washed with soap and lots of water. Shower first in cold water, then warm water. Do not bathe.
  • Don't rub your eyes or face, or this will reactivate any crystals.

Resistance to Tear Gas

The ultimate remedy for the people imprisoned in Mount Olive Correctional Complex is a ban on the use of tear gas and other chemical agents. Thus, despite facing risk of retaliation, people at MOCC have filed lawsuits, made complaints, reported their stories and written letters to several organizations with the desire to expose the horrific abuses they have endured. They inform each other of their rights and support each other in speaking out against these attacks.

Advocates, organizers, and activists living within prisons, face a formidable challenge of an expanding domestic weapons market that outfits prisons and police departments nationally. The same companies profiting from chemical weapons abuse in prisons are also yielding high revenues from global sales to corrupt regimes repressing dissent and social justice movements throughout the world. These companies demonstrate and sell their weapons at expos such as Urban Shield -- a trade show and training exercise for SWAT teams and police agencies that bring local, national and international law enforcement agencies together with "defense industry contractors" to provide training and introduce new weapons to potential markets.

Hundreds of people incarcerated in US prisons are resisting by telling their stories of abuse through tear gas and other chemical weapons. It is clear that all teargas use violates human health and rights. In the face of extreme, risky, and what some consider "hopeless" conditions, however, the testifiers of these abuses possess a rich resilience that may prove to be it's own powerful antidote.

Through dignity, self-determination, and liberation for all, YaliniDream envisions shifting human economies from extraction, exploitation, violence, and war to love, nourishment, care, creativity, and regeneration-- seeking peace through justice in lands of earth, psyche, soul & dream. Twitter: @YaliniDream


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