Recently obtained videos which have been exposed to the public show corrections officers using extreme force on incarcerated people suffering from various forms of mental illness.
Attack on a Suicidal Man at Denver City Jail
Footage of one such video (shown below), taken in September of last year and later obtained by The Colorado Independent through an open records request, shows a team of corrections officers using force on Isaiah Moreno, who had been on suicide watch at the Denver City Jail.
The graphic video shows Moreno repeatedly slamming his head against a concrete wall and pacing in his isolation cell. A team of officers toting restraint equipment is seen assembling outside his cell door – seemingly to stop him from harming himself – where they remain for several minutes as the man continues to bang his head into his cell wall. According to The Colorado Independent:
At one point, after an officer had asked him to stop hitting his head and Moreno responded, “I don’t give a fuck. No. Fuck you.” Moreno sat on the concrete bench that serves as a bed. Eight officers then entered the cell – two with taser guns pointed at him, even though he posed no visible sign of threat. Two of the officers tasered him with electroshocks before he slumped onto the floor. Officers strapped him into a restraint chair and then left him alone in the cell.
The footage of Moreno’s self-harm and of officers’ attack on him was obtained through a public records request. The Colorado Independent edited the 40-minute video to splice out nudity when Moreno was forced to remove his clothing and change into an anti-suicide gown, also known as a “turtle suit.” The smocks are protocol for suicidal inmates so they don’t hang or strangle themselves with their clothing. The gown given to Moreno was far too small for him. Several times in the video, it becomes unfastened, he refastens it and it becomes unfastened again.
According to the story, the incident took place just days following former Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson, who was demoted by the city’s mayor, Michael Hancock, for “excessive force problems.”
As reported by The Colorado Independent:
An investigation by Denver’s Internal Affairs Bureau determined that Sergeant Ned St. Germain – who has worked in the department since 1983 — broke the city’s use of force policies when he directly ordered the two deputies, Luke Swarr and Frank Romero, to taser Moreno in the Sept. 26, 2013, attack.
“Sergeant St. Germain gave the order when the inmate was not physically resisting at the time or immediately before the order was given. Moreover, he was not posing a threat to himself or others,” reads St. Germain’s discipline report. “Simply stated, there was no need to use the taser to gain compliance.”
St. Germain and his deputies had plenty of time to observe Moreno and assess his threat level. Electroshocking a vulnerable, mentally ill man smacks of a certain savagery that shocks the conscience of several people who have viewed the footage.
The story goes on to detail the remarks of Sgt. St. Germain and officials on St. Germain’s conduct:
Hancock promised reform on Monday when he demoted Wilson and announced a national search for a new sheriff to “change the culture” in the department. Still, the mayor’s message was mixed. In announcing Wilson’s ouster, Hancock praised him as a great leader and said, “Unfortunately, the department let him down.”
In a meeting with then-Sheriff Wilson and other top department officials in April, Sgt. St. Germain described the Moreno attack as “a good situation” that was “cut and dry” because, he said, Moreno was cursing at officers, threatening to fight and not responding to orders. He cited Moreno’s “internal anger” as a danger to the staff. He described the incident as “a very successful placement in the chair.”
“I thought it went very well,” he told his superiors. “I would have done this exact same thing again.”
In his disciplinary report, officials wrote, “The Department has great concern regarding your ability to act responsibly and to conduct yourself appropriately while on duty.”
They added: “Your conduct has compromised the mission of the Department.”
Officials punished St. Germain for his misconduct with an unpaid 10-day suspension without pay. He is appealing the disciplinary action.
The Colorado Independent further notes that episodes like this one are not uncommon in Denver’s jails.
A Beating at Rikers Island
A recent story by The New York Times details a report on brutality by corrections officers at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail, from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, stating:
The study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.
The report cataloged in exacting detail the severity of injuries suffered by inmates: fractures, wounds requiring stitches, head injuries and the like. But it also explored who the victims were. Most significantly, 77 percent of the seriously injured inmates had received a mental illness diagnosis.
What emerges is a damning portrait of guards on Rikers Island, who are poorly equipped to deal with mental illness and instead repeatedly respond with overwhelming force to even minor provocations.
The report notes that health department staff members interviewed 80 of the 129 inmates after their altercations with correction officers. In 80 percent of the cases, inmates reported being beaten after they were handcuffed.
The study also contained hints of efforts to cover up the assaults. More than half of the inmates reported facing “interference or intimidation” from correction officers while seeking treatment after an altercation.
In five of the 129 cases, the beatings followed suicide attempts.
Among the 129 instances of guard brutality, a particularly disturbing case captured by video camera surveillance (shown below) involved prisoner Jose Bautista, who at the time suffered from mental illness. Bautista was beaten by guards after attempting suicide by hanging himself by his underwear.
The Times reports:
In many of the cases examined by The Times , the guards’ responses seemed to grossly outweigh the perceived offense. The altercation involving Mr. Bautista early last year is especially puzzling.
After the four guards cut him down from his makeshift noose, he lay prone on the floor of the cell for nearly a minute but then suddenly stood up. Later Mr. Bautista, then 37 and a married father of five who made a living as a house painter and dishwasher, told investigators he did not know why he stood, except that he was confused.
At 5-foot-5, he is significantly smaller than the guards. Whether the four standing over him were startled, scared or angry is hard to know since the surveillance camera that caught much of what happened was unable to pick up sound. But this was the moment when they began wrestling with him and dragging him around the cell.
The Times further reports on the opinions of officials after reviewing the footage:
Later, investigators from four city agencies — the Board of Correction, the Department of Correction, the health department and the office of the medical examiner — watched the video, and all reached the same conclusion. “It can be clearly seen that officers are punching this inmate,” wrote Kennith Armstead of the Correction Board, which monitors conditions at Rikers and investigates serious incidents.
The story also quotes comments made by Bautista following his abusive stay at Rikers:
The pain was unbearable, said Mr. Bautista, who was later told he had depression.
“I felt all the strength going out of my legs and couldn’t stand up anymore,” he said in an interview.
“My stomach felt really hot.”
Jail rules called for him to be transported to the clinic by gurney, but the officers half-walked, half-dragged him there. Feces from the perforated bowel were leaching into his abdomen.
“My stomach was swelling,” Mr. Bautista said. In a few hours, he said, he was put into a van and thought he was going to the hospital, but instead was driven around and returned to the clinic.
A Fatal Cell Extraction at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution
Most recently, The New York Times reported on footage (shown below) of officers using excessive force on Charles Jason Toll, who was diabetic and suffered from mental illness, at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Tennessee.
From the Times:
The August night was hot, but Charles Jason Toll wrapped himself in a coat and covered his mouth to protect against the electrical shocks and gas he thought might come his way. Outside the door of his solitary confinement cell at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution here, five corrections officers in riot gear lined up, tensely awaiting the order to go in. When it came, they rushed into the small enclosure, pushing Mr. Toll to the floor and pinning him down with an electrified shield while they handcuffed him and shackled his legs.
Mr. Toll, 33, a heavyset man who suffered from diabetes and mental illness, said, “I can’t breathe” — a complaint he would repeat, with increasing urgency, at least 12 times that night.
“You’re not going to be able to breathe,” an officer, Capt. James Horton, can be heard telling him on a prison video. And then, “You wanted this.”
Video surveillance can discourage guard brutality
In California, disturbing footage of guards dousing with pepper spray and and using extreme force on prisoners with mental illness prompted the The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to change it’s treatment of mentally ill people:
The Associated Press reports:
California prison officials pledged Friday to take a gentler approach with mentally ill inmates in one of the largest prison systems in the U.S. after graphic images of prisoners being repeatedly doused with pepper spray in their cells were made public several months ago.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a federal court filing that its move will create a system-wide culture change in how 33,000 mentally ill offenders are restrained and isolated.
The state is revising its policies after U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled in April that California’s treatment of mentally ill inmates violates their constitutional safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment.
He acted after the graphic video tapes made by correctional officers were released, showing guards throwing chemical grenades and pumping large amounts of pepper spray into the cells of mentally ill inmates, some screaming and delirious.
Similarly, over 300 surveillance cameras have been installed at the Alabama Department of Corrections’ Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka.
From WFSA News:
The system was designed to eliminate blind spots, help with investigations of prisoner actions and improve upon accountability. The facility, which holds all of Alabama’s female death row inmates, has been blasted for scandals involving alleged widespread sexual abuse and harassment by male corrections officers.
“Completion of the camera installation at Tutwiler is a significant accomplishment for the Alabama Department of Corrections and continued proof of the department’s efforts to make the facility safer for inmates and staff,” Governor Robert Bentley said.
ADOC Commissioner Kim Thomas says he wants to use the camera system’s implementation at Tutwiler as a blueprint for other state corrections facilities. “We understand the ultimate success of the camera system is dependent on its management,” Thomas said.
In spite of these achievements, reports of abuses like those to which Moreno, Bautista, and Toll were subjected rarely reach the public. While video cameras are present in many prisons and jails, the footage is seldom seen by anyone but prison staff. In addition, corrections officers are known to take people to areas without surveillance cameras, or “blind spots,” where they beat prisoners, some of whom are handcuffed and shackled. Yet cases like these are undoubtedly more common U.S. prisons and jails than the public is aware.
As reported by Solitary Watch last fall, video footage made public in California showed guards at state prisons repeatedly dousing psychotic prisoners with pepper spray before forcibly extracting them from their cells. In Maine, surveillance cameras captured two separate episodes of brutality against two men with mental illness.
When asked by Solitary Watch recently for her opinion on whether cameras curb guard brutality against prisoners, Jennifer J. Parish, Director of Criminal Justice Advocacy for the Mental Health Project at the Urban Justice Center, stated:
I believe cameras in prisons and jails are essential and that they can prevent assaults on incarcerated people by staff. Unfortunately even in facilities that have cameras, there are usually areas where cameras are absent. Correction officers know where these areas are and that is where abuse often takes place. For instance, the assault of Andre Lane, which was recently reported in The New York Times, occurred in the mental health clinic where there are no cameras. The complaint in Nunez v. City of New York, the class action lawsuit about brutality in the jails, includes allegations about correction officer assaults occurring in areas without cameras.