By Alan Elsner
April 19, 2005
A new independent commission on abuse within the U.S. prison system heard on Tuesday that guards used electronic stun
guns, rubber bullets and pepper spray as ways of abusing rather than controlling prisoners in the world's largest penal
Former corrections officer Steve Martin, an expert on the use of force in prisons, said that use of physical force against
inmates was a daily event in U.S. prisons, with guards resorting to so-called "nonlethal" weapons as a form of punishment.
"All too often in American corrections, such weaponry is used as a first strike response before other, less painful and
injurious tactics are exhausted," Martin said in written testimony submitted to the commission.
He said he had personal knowledge of 20 inmates who died as a result of the use of force.
"It is difficult to know how often this happens in American corrections as there is no central repository for specific reporting
on such deaths," Martin said.
The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's prisons is funded by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit
organization. The 21-member commission includes correctional officials, lawmakers, academics and human rights activists.
The U.S. Justice Department is cooperating with the body, which intends to hold public hearings around the country.
Ron McAndrew, a retired Florida prison warden, said prisoner abuse in his state was "systematically chronic" with large
prisons plagued by prison guard "goon squads."
"The horrifying part of this story is there are not enough correctional professionals who are willing to go after the goons," he
said in an appearance before the commission.
The U.S. prison system has grown by over 400 percent in the past 25 years and now holds around 2.2 million inmates total
in local jails and maximum security prisons. In the course of a year, 13.5 million people pass through the system. As a
proportion of the population, the United States incarcerates seven to 10 times as many people as most other democracies.
Department of Justice inspector general Glenn Fine said laws criminalizing sexual relations between guards and inmates in
the federal prison system mandated a maximum punishment of one year in jail unless the guard used or threatened force.
Additionally, many prosecutors were not interested in prosecuting sexual abusers, regardless of the strength of the
evidence, Fine said.
Donald Cabana, former warden of Parchman prison in Mississippi that includes the state's death row, said in written
testimony that the category of institutions known as supermaximum security or "Supermax" prisons, where inmates are kept
in continuous, long-term segregation, were particularly prone to abuse.
"The sense of hopelessness and despair on the part of inmates in these units becomes problematic for prison staff who are
ill-equipped to deal with the increased signs of mental illness, psychosis, suicidal behavior and a plethora of other aberrant
behaviors," Cabana said.