AS MASSACHUSETTS Attorney General Maura Healey recently found, corrections officers at the Bristol County Jail on May 1 used excessive use of force to quell a nonviolent demonstration by non-criminal ICE detainees who were concerned about contracting COVID-19 in the jail’s cramped quarters.
At the center of the complaint were actions by the jail’s in-house SWAT team, which responded to the protest with snarling dogs, battering rams, and enough pepper spray to send three detainees to the hospital.
While most readers would see this as a shocking abuse of power, it is hardly an aberration.
Based on my analysis of hundreds of pages of county jail reports released under the Massachusetts public records law, the use of militarized tactical teams against incarcerated persons—many of whom are passively resisting or in the midst of a mental health crisis—is all too common.
Over the last several years, Black Lives Matter protesters have raised awareness of the harm that can come to communities when local police assume a battlefield mentality. But the militarization of law enforcement also extends to jails and prisons, where it too often results in degrading and inhumane treatment of those suffering from mental illness.
The correctional emergency response team, often abbreviated as CERT, was originally developed in the 1970s in response to an unprecedented wave of prison rebellions. Many in the corrections field saw the need for CERT after the bloody retaking of Attica State Prison, in September 1971, during which New York state troopers and other heavily armed officers killed 29 inmates and 10 hostages. If only prisons and jails had their own means of quelling inmate disturbances, the thinking went, they could more humanely deal with riots by reducing their reliance on outside agencies like the state police. But what was intended as reform turned out to be anything but, as CERTs across the country soon developed reputations for brutality.
In theory, today’s CERTs act as a necessary bulwark against uprisings and other emergency situations. In practice, however, fueled by the macho militarism endemic to law enforcement in the United States, these tactical units have metastasized from rarely used emergency response specialists into a standard part of everyday corrections.
In my research, I have found numerous cases where these tactical units respond brutally to irksome—but non-violent—inmate behavior like refusing to return a plastic meal tray or covering one’s cell window with a blanket.
One group that tends to fare poorly at the hands of these paramilitary units is the mentally ill. Take the example of a 30-year-old inmate at the Hampden County Correctional Center. On the afternoon of Oct 25, 2017, this inmate—whom I’ll call John, for privacy reasons—threatened to harm himself. A Hampden County lieutenant later wrote that when the facility’s CERT stacked up outside his cell, John hid behind a mattress. Officers then unleashed a torrent of pepper spray. “Inmate was sprayed seven times before he became compliant,” the lieutenant noted.
John seems to have been severely disturbed and frequently sought to hurt himself during his stay at the Ludlow facility. Despite having one of the Commonwealth’s best equipped correctional mental health units, Hampden County repeatedly treated John with military force. Between October 18, 2016, and August 24, 2018, officers doused him with pepper spray on 26 separate occasions for threatening self-harm, refusing orders, or for such nonviolent conduct as placing a towel over his cell window.
Or take the case of another suicidal person, this time at Worcester County House of Correction in August 2018. When jail authorities wanted the inmate moved to the facility’s mental health unit for evaluation, they found him non-compliant. What followed was not a negotiation led by trained metal health professionals, but rather two blasts of pepper spray and a fusillade of nonlethal rounds launched by members of the jail’s SWAT-style Special Operations Group.
Having fired at the inmate’s legs a total of 16 times with a device known to cause searing pain and tissue damage, the team entered the cell with shields and body armor to immobilize the inmate.
“In so many of these instances what you’re actually seeing is a prisoner in severe emotional distress,” said Jesse White, staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services. She said that, instead of force, jailers should pursue mental health intervention and de-escalation.
White and her colleagues at Prisoners’ Legal Services are pushing legislation that would create consistent guidelines for use of force in all Massachusetts correctional facilities and forbid the use of chemical agents against prisoners who may have cognitive or psychiatric disabilities that impede their ability to understand or comply with orders.
Such legislation deserves broad support because degrading and inhumane treatment of incarcerated persons—particularly those with mental illness—should never be condoned. Supporting these bills is the acid test of a commitment to human rights and criminal justice reform.
Seth Kershner is a freelance writer and researcher whose work has appeared in DigBoston, Worcester Magazine, and In These Times. He is also the co-author (with Scott Harding) of Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).