Jail and prison staff throughout the United States have used unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force against prisoners with mental disabilities, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released last week.
The 127-page report, “Callous and Cruel: Use of Force against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons,” details incidents in which correctional staff have deluged prisoners with painful chemical sprays, shocked them with powerful electric stun weapons, and strapped them for days in restraining chairs or beds. Staff have broken prisoners’ jaws, noses, ribs; left them with lacerations requiring stitches, second-degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs. In some cases, the force used has led to their death.
Staff in US correctional facilities are authorized to use force when necessary to control dangerous or highly disruptive prisoners. But as Human Rights Watch found, staff at times respond with violence when prisoners engage in behavior that is symptomatic of their mental health problems and even when it is minor and non-threatening, such as urinating on the floor, using profane language, banging on a cell door, masturbating, complaining about not receiving a meal, or refusing to come out of a cell. Staff also sometimes use force to punish inmates who annoy or anger them.