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Prisoners file suit to stop use of gases

Orlando Sentinel, September 13, 2003

22 prisoners across Florida on Friday asked a federal court to stop what they contend is the growing "sadistic" use of pepper spray and tear gas by state correctional officers.

A class-action lawsuit was filed in Fort Myers by inmates -- many suffering from mental illness -- who say they have been gassed, most often when already locked in their 1-man cells and unable to harm guards or fellow prisoners. Comparing the treatment to torture, they claim the state has violated their Eighth Amendment protection against "cruel and unusual" punishment.

"The prisoner is trapped in the cell, burning and gasping for air," said Lisa White Shirley, a lawyer with the Florida Institutional Legal Services of Gainesville. "What hundreds of prisoners told us is that, if they were given an order to be quiet, they usually obeyed it. But the officers came back and sprayed them. There was no need for the use of force."

According to the lawsuit, filed by Shirley and the Florida Justice Institute of Miami, chemicals were used more than 1,800 times last year, becoming the most popular use of force in the state prison system. The prisoners contend the chemicals often leave them with 2nd-degree burns, permanent eye damage, life-threatening asthma attacks and further deteriorate their mental state.

Florida Corrections Secretary James Crosby immediately defended the use of chemical agents, saying the Department of Corrections has detailed rules for their use. He said using chemicals is an accepted practice for controlling prisoners upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Every day, our correctional officers supervise felons in prisons throughout the state who are convicted of violent crimes such as murder, rape and assault. Daily, they face life-threatening situations," said Crosby, a former warden of Florida State Prison.
"Despite this danger, they are required to show restraint when faced with these situations, using chemical agents instead of force or weapons that could cause permanent harm to aggressive inmates."

Among the plaintiffs is Curt Massie, a 41-year-old prisoner at Florida State Prison diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He claims that correctional officers emptied cans of pepper spray and tear gas in his locked cell as punishment for "making a funny face behind a nurse's back."

According to the lawsuit, when Massie was taken to the shower an officer turned on hot water to intensify his pain. He says he still experiences discomfort.

Jeremiah Thomas, an asthmatic who suffers from mental illness, was sprayed with chemical agents at least 19 times and had painful blisters and open wounds on his body, according to the lawsuit. He has been receiving intensive mental health treatment for the past 2 years.

Inmate advocates noted a dramatic increase in the use of chemical agents after the 1999 death of Frank Valdes, who was stomped to death while being removed from his cell on death row at Florida State Prison in Starke.

The death of Valdes, who murdered a Palm Beach County prison guard in 1987, led state corrections officials to reactivate a requirement that all cell extractions be videotaped. But the state does not require that the use of chemicals on inmates be recorded.

"They videotape every other use of force in the prisons, but not chemical agents," Shirley said.

The lawsuit claims that the use of chemical agents rose 87 % at Florida State Prison between 2000 and 2002, when it was used 447 times.

"In 2002, more than once a day someone was getting sprayed," she said.

The Correctional Medical Authority, set up to monitor health care in Florida prisons as the result of another federal lawsuit, has also raised questions about the use of chemicals by correctional officers - statewide and specifically at Florida State Prison.

In June 2002, an authority report noted that inmate and staff interviews at Florida State Prison "suggested that inappropriate use of chemical agents was occurring" although the claims were never refuted or affirmed.

And, in a December 2002 report, the authority voiced its concern about the state eliminating the videotaping of the use of chemical agents.

The report noted "this eliminates what is likely the only evidence available to substantiate or refute information contained in a written use-of-force report."

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