Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Gassed Behind Closed Doors

Michele Gillen (CBS4) Necessary discipline or cruel and unusual punishment?

A controversial practice regarding the treatment of the mentally ill in Florida's maximum security prisons has some attorneys and mental health experts raising concerns over its use.

"Here they are just gassing him. You can see they are just spraying him in the face," said Miami attorney Leon Fresco. "I would describe it as the eighth amendment does - cruel and unusual punishment."

According to lawyers representing mentally ill prisoners who have been incarcerated in Florida prisons, the state allegedly allows guards to spray inmates suffering from mental illness with chemical agents to "discipline them."

"They call these inmates bugs. They say these inmates are bugs. A bug is a term they use for a crazy person. And they gas them and it's just shocking and it's just something we can't allow it to continue anymore," said Fresco who has been investigating the treatment of the mentally ill behind bars.

"If they see behavior they don't like they gas them, just like you'd gas a bug that you don't like," said Fresco.

"They're acting out because of their mental illness and as a result of that they're being punished, pure and simple," said Randy Berg, co-counsel for Florida Justice Institute. "This certainly by anyone's definition, I think, is torture. This is a practice of the Florida Department of Corrections currently to gas known mentally ill inmates who are acting out by banging on their cells."

Jerome Maxime Thomas of Lauderhill says he prays every day that his son Jeremiah, who has been diagnosed with severe mental illness, will survive his incarceration at Starke Prison and the alleged chemical gassings he has been subjected to over a period of years, despite orders from the medical staff that he was not to be gassed given his severe mental illness.

"My son has told me he should have died many times, but the Lord has kept him alive," said Thomas, "Something must be done, because it's going too far."

Lawyers say Thomas, who was convicted of second degree murder and robbery and is scheduled to be released in 2018, has been gassed with an arsenal of chemical agents including pepper spray and CN gas, which is prohibited in many prisons because of a link to inmate deaths.

"He (Jeremiah) was gassed twice a day, sometimes as many as eight days in a row," said Berg.

After the gas, prisoners are usually asked if they would like a shower to wash the toxic chemicals. The water apparently doesn't always do the trick and some inmates suffer burns.

According to Department of Corrections written instructions guards are only allowed to use one second bursts of a chemical agent, but that rule is reportedly not always followed.

Lawyers for former inmate Curt Massie, who suffered second degree burns across his body, says he was gassed with OC and CN gas for making a funny face at a nurse who failed to give him his anxiety medication. Massie's attorneys say he has second degree burns over more than 60-percent of his body from the procedure.

Massie allegedly was gassed repeatedly in his cell despite pleading with the guards to stop. Records show that one guard admitted that his "use of force report" was altered by adding the words "kicking his cell door" to justify the use of the gas on Massie.

"From a taxpayer standpoint it makes absolutely no sense that we're wasting our resources to gas the guy, make him decompensate, send him to the hospital where we are spending tax dollars to attempt to bring him back to mental competency or stability bring them back and gas them again," said Berg.

Attorneys suing the state over the procedure have been able to obtain videotapes of a handful of gassings. Videotaping gassings was instituted to monitor the use of the chemicals but several wardens prohibited the filming.

"It's certainly inappropriate to use chemical agents for mentally ill people who are acting out solely because of their mental illness," said Berg. "We should be sympathetic to their treatment because they're going to get out. If you treat human beings like animals and literally like rats they're going to be that way when they get released to society so it's in our best interest to treat these people like human beings while they're in there."

Curt Massie was freed from prison last month. Jeremiah Thomas is set to be released in 5 years.

"I hope that someone is listening. I hope that those who are viewing will take account. And will tell themselves we can not allow this to continue," said Thomas.

"I would submit that these people are much worse off than when they went in when we release them," said Berg "and some of these people frighteningly enough get released directly from close management from solitary confinement to the street, that as a citizen frightens me quite frankly. We're making these people more and more angry, more and more mentally ill, and then releasing them directly to the street, it makes no sense."

Given the pending lawsuit against the state, the current secretary of corrections cannot discuss any particular cases involved; however, he met with Michele Gillen to address the overall policy of chemical gassing the mentally ill.

According to James McDonough, Secretary of Corrections, "We do not use chemical agents for punishment. We do not use chemical agents for discipline. We only do it to insure the security and reduction of harm."

"The fact that the videotaping was discontinued in prior administrations a concern to you:" asked Gillen.

"Enough of a concern that we have a policy that says you sure as hell better videotape," said McDonough. "We are seeing the incidents of chemical agents and physical force going down, not slightly but deeply."

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