The Weekly Abolitionist: How Prisons Kill

In recent weeks, I’ve seen multiple stories about deaths in prisons. These deaths were all preventable and easily attributable to prison conditions. Let’s examine a few of these incidents.

According to the Miami Herald, “Florida’s Department of Corrections is facing a third potential criminal probe in the wake of another inmate death at a state prison.” The most recent death is that of Damion Foster, a 36 year old man who “died when corrections officers were attempting a ‘cell extraction.'” In other words, he died while experiencing direct coercive violence from prison guards. This seems like a case of possible murder or manslaughter, but it is likely to be shrouded in euphemism, because the violent extraction of prisoners from their cells is considered a normal or essential part of prison operations. Perhaps even more disturbing is the death of Darren Rainey. According to the Herald:

Rainey, serving two years on a cocaine charge, was placed in the shower by prison guards and left there for more than an hour, allegedly under a spray of water heated to in excess of 160 degrees. He was placed in the shower for a prolonged period as punishment after defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up, according to repeated written grievances filed by Harold Hempstead, a burglar who was an orderly in the mental-health unit. Hempstead said he was assigned to a cell beneath the shower and could hear Rainey screaming for mercy. … When Rainey was found, he was so badly burned that portions of his skin had slipped from his body, a witness and several former employees at the prison told the Herald.

So guards scalded Rainey’s skin off with water hotter than 160 degrees as a method of punishment. Rainey was killed in June 2012. If any ordinary citizen did this, it would be quickly recognized as murder and prosecuted as such. By contrast, the guards responsible were subjected to a criminal investigation, but as of May 22nd this year, the police had not yet concluded whether there was any inappropriate or criminal behavior to prosecute. The story is even more disturbing in light of the fact that “Rainey was not the only prisoner who got the shower treatment.”

Disturbing prison deaths are certainly not unique to Florida. On February 15th this year, homeless veteran Jerome Murdough baked to death in his 101-degree cell at New York’s Riker’s Island jail. It’s all too common for prisoners to bake to death in overheated prisons and jails. A recent report from the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic points out at least 14 inmate deaths in Texas related to overheating since 2007. The report “concludes that current conditions in TDCJ facilities constitute a violation of Texas’s duty to guarantee the rights to health, life, physical integrity, and dignity of detainees, as well as its duty to prevent inhuman or degrading treatment of its inmates.”

In 2011, the Center for a Stateless Society’s own Brad Spangler noted that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was “literally roasting prisoners alive.” Spangler explained that “Temperatures inside the tents at the prison camp the Sheriff operates are reaching 145°F. By way of comparison, a round of roast beef is said to be medium-rare when it reaches a core temperature of 130°F to 140°F.” Furthermore, he argued that such abuses “are logical consequences of the perverse economic incentives of monopoly government.” Given that similarly abusive conditions are seen in prisons and jails from New York to Florida to Texas to Arizona, I’m inclined to agree.

People often ask what we would do about murderers without prisons. But the sad truth is that prisons themselves kill. As Dean Spade puts it, “The prison is the serial killer.”

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