An inside perspective on the use of pepper spray

Several days ago a dear friend was recounting her terrifying experience of being pepper-sprayed last month while attending a rally outside the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island, where immigrants are being detained unjustly by ICE.

Many of you will recall how when peaceful demonstrators were attempting to prevent being run over by a crazed guard driving a pickup truck, the crowd was viciously assaulted and pepper-prayed by overzealous guards from that prison. (The guard driving that pickup truck– a Captain– resigned from his job the following day. Why he was not charged with attempted murder, or at least assault with a deadly weapon, is anyone’s guess).

The unprovoked attack resulted in several protesters requiring hospitalization and treatment for broken bones and or/respiratory issues. My friend described how, after already being pepper-sprayed twice in her eyes, nose and mouth, she dropped to the ground and blocked her airways with clothing. The threat of suffocating to death was very real for my friend that evening.

In turn, I began to share my own experiences of being gassed or pepper-sprayed, which is a regular occurrence at MCI Shirley, a medium security prison in central Massachusetts where certain guards carry pepper spray on their belts.

Fights happen regularly at this prison, a number of them in the chow hall during meals. In the year or so since my arrival at this prison there have been no fewer than thirty fights in the chow hall, with at least twenty-five of those resulting in the use of pepper-spray in order to separate the combatants. Once unleashed, usually sprayed in the direction of the persons fighting, the irritant quickly spreads through the atmosphere (in the summers, aided by the fans mounted on the wall), affecting everyone in the chow-hall, staff included. There is no place to go to escape the burning of eyes, noses and throats as all doors are quickly secured. You can taste it in the food, and you either have to eat it or go hungry. 

The use of pepper-spray in Mass prisons is relatively new. I don’t recall it being used at all in my thirty years at MCI Norfolk. And in my three and a half years at MCI Walpole, from 1981 to 1985,  other than in the notorious 10-block, tear-gas was used once in the general prison population to start a near riot (in 1984) when a rookie guard panicked when he mistakenly thought prisoners were taking over the prison while leaving the auditorium during the viewing of a movie.

I’ve seen a lot of fights in my nearly 36 years in prison, and I can tell you that once guards respond to a fight, it is broken up pretty quickly, without the need for mace or pepper-spray. Most guys won’t resist and tussle with guards for fear of being charged with assault and risking more prison time, so they cuff up.

Several months ago two prisoners were fighting in the chow hall not more than ten feet from where I sat and ate. As usual, no weapons were involved and the fight was quickly broken up. As one of the guys was being cuffed, an officer walked right up to that prisoner and blasted him directly in his face with a stream of pepper spray; a full thirty minutes after the fight was over! The poor guy was gasping for air as guards led him away while the rest of us in the area began to choke and rub our eyes.

It wasn’t the first time that that officer has done that, and I’m sure it won’t be his last. It was, and is, completely unjustified, but this is what happens when you allow people – particularly those in law enforcement to carry and use weapons that they don’t know how to use and who become overzealous in their responses to non-threatening situations, just like in Rhode Island, or in Boston at the “Straight Pride” parade.

Greg Diatchenko

A message from Alexander Phillips

“Organizing For A Cup Of Joe”

By Alexander Phillips

“Hey Steve keep a peak for me will you? I need to hop in the shower and I don’t know when the cop last did a round.” This conversation happens countless times a day in the facility that I reside in. One must sneak around and break rules just to shower.  We are on water restrictions ; one shower a day for a set two-hour period, with five showers for a seventy person unit. Not a serious problem, that is until you take into consideration that on a daily basis and at random times of day, our water turns so black and filled with sediment that you cannot see through lt. This is the same water we drink and bathe with. The black water has a name here as a sad joke in an attempt to lighten the mood of our predicament ; It’s called Norfolk Coffee. If the water is black during our specified shower time, tough luck. Either you shower or you don’t! Hence, we must break institutional rules just to clean ourselves. A friend of mine joked the other day that when he washed his face, he got a chunk of water stuck in his eye. We joke, but men have come back from having tumors removed that were laced with heavy metals, and random headaches come a dime a dozen.

During the Holocaust of WWII “camp regulations were designed to make life impossible. Survival therefore depended on an ‘underworld’ of activities, all of them illegal, all of them risky, but essential to life. There was a special word for this, current in all the camps to carry out any illegal action was to organize” (Des Pres, 120).

Today the wording of the D. O. C. rules are as follows 103 CMR 430 inmate disciplinary offense number 3-13: “organizing or participating in a group activity or meeting Inside the correctional institution… 3-30, attempting to commit any of the above offenses…”

I must make it absolutely clear, in no manner am I trying to compare the horrible suffering, tragedy, and genocide of the Holocaust to the experiences of this correctional institution. In no way am I attempting to compare the overall circumstances between the the two either; where one suffered because of their ethnicity and religion, the other because they chose to commit an actual “crime.”

It is just my intent to draw the ironic parallels between this idea of ‘organizing,’ It’s up to the reader to draw any conclusions from it. An Auschwitz survivor explains that “[In] the language of a political prisoner the word ‘organize’ means to acquire a thing you need without wronging another prisoner” (Des pres, 120).1 For the concentration camp prisoners this usually meant food and water, for my 1,500 fellow inmates it means acquiring relatively clean water. When Norfolk Coffee is served via the faucets and shower-heads at random times of day, and the water restrictions are strictly enforced despite these circumstances, one has to find ingenious ways to ‘organize to meet your essential needs. Whether this is drinking, cooking, eating, showering, brushing your teeth cleaning your cell, or laundry, one must ‘organize.’ There is no leniency of the water-use rules since the administration denies the health hazards of our Norfolk Coffee.

Terrence Des Pres describes how the Nazis dehumanized the people in the camps by restricting their “bathroom” privileges to the point where everyone had no choice but to soil themselves. They were then punished for breaking the bathroom rules; this he calls excremental assault. Fast forward to a few summers ago when our water problem here at Norfolk became so drastic that portable toilets had to be shipped in, and eventually after days, we were given bottled water. For the first few days with barely any water to even drink, men
walked around in the 90 plus degree heat with no means of even sub-par hygiene amidst a sea of over full portable toilets. The sight, smell, and overall conditions could only be described as excremental assault; truly a loss of our humanity. Eventually more water did arrive, but our humanity wasn’t on those shipments. We now had a choice: drink or bathe. But bathing would still be to ‘organize’ since it was forbidden. I saw men fight over contaminated water from rain collectors like dogs over a bone. What they and I would have given for some Norfolk Coffee back in those days…

These conditions have been continuing for countless years now and we are experiencing the political side of ‘organizing’ now. Men are fed up with our conditions and are using any available avenue to affect change essential to our livelihood. But now we are prosecuted on both ends breaking rules in order to get water and breaking rules to change our circumstances with the water. We may not be executed for our infractions of ‘organizing,’ but racking up infractions for ‘organizing’ effects our chances for successfully returning back to society. The parole board does not want to hear the “rationalization” that I was just trying to better me and my fellow inhumane living conditions. Why? Because as it was in the past, we must organize to survive!

  1. Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life In the Death
    Camps. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

A message from Wayland Coleman

A message from Wayland Coleman, currently incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk, read at yesterday’s press conference:

I want to take a moment to thank everyone for taking the time to listen and for allowing us to have a voice. The Massachusetts Department of Corrections is a monstrosity that is designed to label, dehumanize, and warehouse men and women who are primarily from lower class, poor, and poverty-stricken communities, while keeping society blind and ignorant of the inhumanities of incarceration. It propagates fear in the public through the process of negative labeling, stereotyping, and stigmatizing. Its fear-based tactics triggers society to willingly pour hundreds of millions of tax-payer dollars each year into a criminal justice system that has proven to not work. The repressive nature of incarceration is in direct contrast to society’s beliefs in a penological system that properly rehabilitates, and the actions of the criminal justice system as a whole contradicts society’s naïve belief in a criminal justice system that properly convicts.

The #DeeperThanWater coalition was motivated by the exposure of chronic water issues at MCI-Norfolk. The June 18, 2017 Boston Globe article by reporter David Abel revealed the tip of an iceberg of issues related to the institutional treatment of incarcerated men and women. The members of the #DeeperThanWater coalition recognize the violation of basic human rights and chose to step up to do something about it. They began to network with those of us who are incarcerated and with those who had been incarcerated before and discovered that the issues of the incarcerated were much deeper than just the water issues at MCI-Norfolk. The administrator and staff treatment of the incarcerated as less than is a cornerstone in the system of punishment, often resulting in the deprivation of basic human and civil rights. Society often doesn’t know about the abuses of incarcerated men and women through beatings, gassings, harassment, and psychological torture, not to mention rape and sexual harassment in women’s prisons.

Our purpose is to make you aware and to challenge you to step up and be a voice to change and bring an end to such draconian practices. Therefore, the goals of the #DeeperThanWater coalition in part is to bring public awareness to the inhumanities that exist within the system of incarceration, destroy the dehumanizing label of “inmate” in order to restore the concept of “person” to the incarcerated, and to reconnect people outside of prison to those inside. In conclusion, consider this: the wall of a so-called “correctional institution” is not there to keep the incarcerated from getting out. It’s there to keep you from looking in.

Thank you.

Wayland Coleman

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