Facing Tear Gas: Chemical Weapons Abuse in US Prisons

Facing Tear Gas: Chemical Weapons Abuse in US Prisons

by YaliniDream

Multiple letters from Mount Olive Correctional Complex (MOCC) in West Virginia, report at least 5-7 imprisoned people are sprayed by tear gas, pepper spray or other chemical agents each week.  First-hand testimonies refer to the guards' lax references to the frequent use of these chemicals as “bug spray.”

One person reports getting sprayed after kicking a door and breaking a window because guards ignored his emergency call button.  He had not received his diabetic snack bag, which he had been requesting for four hours.  In a letter he writes to the War Resisters League he describes that, “I have severe hypoglycemia at nighttime which can result in my death… they opened the beanhole and used a canister of OC [oleoresin capsicum gas] spray on my stomach and testicles intentionally!”  OC spray, commonly referred to as pepper spray, is derived from capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers.  According to his letter, the spray dispersed to the top tier of the ventilation system impacting at least seven others imprisoned in the MOCC.

Another person living inside MOCC was sprayed after suffering severe symptoms of paranoia.  He writes that he was diagnosed with Schizophrenia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental illnesses prior to incarceration.  On October 1st 2012, when he began having a paranoia-induced anxiety attack, others housed in his area pushed the emergency call button.  While he was hallucinating and building a web with sheets that he tore, he was not hostile to anyone or posing a threat.  He writes of guards opening the food slot to deploy a 12 oz canister of Phantom-- an OC spray manufactured by Sabre Red Security Equipment Corporation.  Shortly after, another 12 oz canister was deployed.  Ten minutes after, a 6 oz canister was deployed.  Later, a 9 oz canister of Clearout was sprayed-- a brand of aerosol grenade containing both OC and CS [orthochlorbenzalmalononitrile] gasses made by Aerko International.  CS gas (named after B.B. Corson and R.W. Stoughton, the American scientists who discovered it) is a tear gas whose fine white powder contains several cyanide functional groups that was developed at Britain's secretive military science park Porton Down.  Each time a canister was deployed, the food slot was shut, enclosing the cell.  He and another person who witnessed the incident both wrote that they believe the guards intended to kill him.

Another letter describes another incarcerated man getting sprayed for speaking out on behalf of two people who requested mental health support but instead were tear gassed.  The water supply had been cut off in his unit.  He was already experiencing irritation in his eyes and throat from the two other men being excessively sprayed less than an hour before.  He advocated for those who had already been sprayed and expressed to the guards that they had no right to shut off the water.   He writes that shortly after a rod was placed under his door, and he was sprayed for 5-7 seconds through the bean hole.  With nothing to alleviate the pain, he splashed toilet water on his skin.  He was left in the enclosed cell for 40-50 minutes.  When he begged for help, he was faced with a riot-control shot gun; “The next day I awoke to severe pain all over my body, as I had large burn blisters on my legs, thighs, torso, arms and face.  After a few days, I was seen by a nurse and diagnosed with first-degree chemical burns.  For two weeks, a yellowish discharge flowed from these wounds.”  Robert, another person imprisoned at MOCC, similarly wrote of receiving first-degree burns from secondary exposure after someone else was sprayed in response to a mental health incident.

These are only a few excerpts from the testimonies written in over 100 letters sent to War Resisters League from people incarcerated inside US Prisons regarding abuse of what guards call “bug spray.” Amongst the myriad of human rights violations and abuses occurring daily in prisons across the United States, the use of tear-gas, pepper spray and other aerial chemical weapons is a frequent invisibilized abuse.  Chemical weapons spraying as an enforcement tactic in US prisons is often in response to minor infractions, people struggling with mental health issues, people advocating for their rights, and most often occurs in enclosed spaces.  While tear gas is legal for domestic use, it is banned from use in warfare by international law-- a double standard in desperate need of elimination.


What is Tear Gas?

Tear gases, counter intuitively, are not actually gases, but solid particles dispersed through the air via aerosol.  Developed and used in World War I, tear gases are nerve agents that specifically activate pain-sensing neurons.  Despite being distributed by US companies with names like Nonlethal Technologies and AmTech Less Lethal, tear gases are far from benign irritants.   Rather, evidence shows that they are dangerous, potentially lethal, chemical agents as evidenced by the 2010 death of Randall Jordan-Aparo in Florida's Franklin Correctional Institution after guards blasted tear gas through his food slot.  Tear gasses are so dangerous, in fact, that they are outlawed for use during wartime under the Chemical Weapons Convention and 1925 Geneva Protocol.

The use of OC spray (or pepper spray), was originally used as a dog repellent in the 1980's by US mail carriers.  The effects of pepper spray and tear gas on animals is less than on humans due to animals’ under-developed tear-ducts and fur that protects them.  A widely-circulated, influential, and fraudulent study by the FBI's special agent Thomas Ward, "chief of pepper spray testing and research," popularized OC spray as a "riot control agent" (RCA) on humans amongst local law enforcement agencies.   On February 12, 1996, Thomas Ward plead guilty to a single count felony for accepting a $57,500 ‘kickback’ from the manufacturers of Cap-Stun brand pepper spray. According to the Earth First! Journal, "[t]he second-largest company in the growing pepper spray industry, Cap-Stun also happened to be owned by Ward’s very own wife, and, coincidentally, was the exact brand recommended by Ward as far back as the mid-’80s." It should be noted that Ward’s falsified study is still cited today as rationalization for use of OC.

NGO Physicians for Human Rights believes that “ ‘tear gas’ is a misnomer for a group of poisonous gases which, far from being innocuous, have serious, acute and longer-term adverse effects on the health of significant numbers of those exposed.”  In August 2012, they released a report about Bahrain's use of tear gas against protesters stating, "The Bahrain government's indiscriminate use of tear gas as a weapon has resulted in the maiming, blinding, and even killing of civilian protesters, and must stop at once…"  Tear gas is, indeed, a chemical weapon.

Treatments for Tear Gas Poisoning:

The daunting truth is that effectively remedying exposure to tear gas is challenging with most responses in the hands of medical professionals.  Even more frightening, is that we still know very little about these weapons' long-term effects and there are still no treatments to address them. 

While flushing with water can decontaminate some tear gas exposure, sinisterly, use of water can also exacerbate the pain especially when exposed to the highly toxic Dibenzoxazepine-based CR tear gas and other types of chemical agents.  According to Dr. Sven-Eric Jordt, professor in Anesthesiology at Duke University School of Medicine and founder of Jordt Lab, when tear gas is deposited on the human body, it can cause burn-like injury and swelling, especially [in] parts of the body that are moist, like eyes and armpits.  Andre, who is also imprisoned at MOCC, writes about a nurse using water on him to no avail.  He had been sprayed after yelling at a CO that he needed someone from medical because he was experiencing chest pains and was lightheaded.  Twenty minutes after being sprayed, he was directed to strip in his cell in order to be decontaminated-- spreading chemical exposure to his entire body.  When he finally received medical attention, Andre reports, “I told the [nurse] my “privates” were on fire.  She squirted water down my shorts which did absolutely nothing to alleviate the burning to my penis, testicles, and anus.”

According to the article "Riot Control Agents and their Respiratory Effects" medical responses to exposures currently includes using dilution, washing, and chemical neutralization to remove toxicants; treatment of pain with anti-inflammatory drugs as well as general and local anesthetics; and stabilization of the air passages with bronchodilators.

The Jordt Lab uses pharmacological, molecular genetic and physiological approaches as well as fluorescent imaging techniques to research how humans and animals sense touch and pain.  Their publications identify a receptor for pain that is activated by tear gas, which causes: closing of the eyes, rushes of pain, and bronchial spasms that make people feel like they are suffocating. The Jordt Lab's research on countermeasures, such as tear gas receptor blockers, may provide new remedies to alleviate irritation, airway inflammation, disorders of chronic airway inflammation, cough, and perhaps even pulmonary edema and other aspects of Acute Lung Injury seen with high-levels of tear gas exposure.

Many groups outside US Prisons who face state repression have gathered their own methods of addressing tear gas exposure.  The People's Community Medics based in Oakland saw a need for healthcare in their neighborhood in response to street and police violence.  They taught themselves how to support people experiencing seizures, gunshot wounds, and impacts of chemical weapons like tear gas. They provided the following suggestions in response to tear gas at the People’s Community Medic’s training at the INCITE: Color of Violence Conference, Chicago, March 2015:

1.Put 50% Maalox (liquid antacid/Milk of Magnesia) and 50% water in a spray bottle and spray everywhere the chemicals hit.  If you only have Milk of Magnesia tablets, chew them up and spit them into your hand, and rub on affected skin.
2. Carry an extra set of clothes (loose, like sweats), so clothes that are gassed can be removed and/or discarded.  If you keep them, wash them alone, in cold water, several times.
3. Have a bandana or dust-mask soaked with vinegar in a baggie and cover your mouth when police start putting on their gas masks, since you know its about to go down.
4. Don't wear contacts if you are at risk of being exposed to chemical weapons.
5. If a canister gets thrown at you, do not pick it up; kick it away from you and away from other people. Only pick it up if you have very thick gloves.

According to the International News Safety Institute (INSI), an organization providing practical information to help journalists do their jobs safely, the most effective protection against tear gas and pepper spray is a respirator gas mask.  They inform their members that:

  • A gas mask consists of a rubber mask with a canister and filter fitted to the side.
  • It is fitted to the size and shape of your face, and you should not assume that yours will fit someone else. If you already have a gas mask, make sure it is working properly and is correctly fitted. Any masks purchased online or in military surplus stores should be checked by an expert to ensure they work correctly.
  • Ensure you have a spare canister, as they do need changing after several hours (this depends on the make and model of the gas mask as well as how long it has been used).
  • The next best thing after a gas mask is an escape hood.... You can also use a builder's respirator that covers your nose and mouth – but make sure that you use appropriate filters. Failing that, a dust mask for DIY and building and airtight goggles will provide some degree of protection.

Persons incarcerated in the US, however, have little access to these responses or protections.   There are a few points shared on the INSI website, however, that people enduring in prisons can keep in mind when sprayed by tear gas or pepper spray.   In writing this information, INSI spoke to British company SecureBio-- a chemical weapons firm whose website boasts of staff that "are cleared to UK Secret, having honed their skills on CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear] operations around the world with specialist units from the British Army and [London's] Metropolitan Police Service."

  • If you have no protection, cover your mouth and nose with cloth or clothing to protect your airway (keep in mind the outside of your clothes are likely to be contaminated).
  • Keeping your arms outstretched will help CS gas to come off your clothing.
  • Try to get to high ground – most teargases are heavier than air, so the highest concentrations tend to sit nearer to the ground. Do not crouch.
  • Remember that the gas will infuse clothing for many months; so any clothing that may have been contaminated should be immediately washed several times or discarded.
  • Many of these agents come in the form of crystals, which react with water. Using small amounts of water (such as a wet towel or shirt) immediately after exposure to CS gas is likely to reactivate these crystals and may prolong the effects.  Any exposed skin should be washed with soap and lots of water. Shower first in cold water, then warm water. Do not bathe.
  • Don't rub your eyes or face, or this will reactivate any crystals.

Resistance to Tear Gas

The ultimate remedy for the people imprisoned in Mount Olive Correctional Complex is a ban on the use of tear gas and other chemical agents.  Thus, despite facing risk of retaliation, people at MOCC have filed lawsuits, made complaints, reported their stories and written letters to several organizations with the desire to expose the horrific abuses they have endured.  They inform each other of their rights and support each other in speaking out against these attacks.

Advocates, organizers, and activists living within prisons, face a formidable challenge of an expanding domestic weapons market that outfits prisons and police departments nationally.  The same companies profiting from chemical weapons abuse in prisons are also yielding high revenues from global sales to corrupt regimes repressing dissent and social justice movements throughout the world.  These regimes commit a number of other human rights violations ranging from disappearances to extrajudicial killings.  Wyoming-based Defense Technology (part of Canadian firm Safariland), who was the source of some of the tear gas used in Ferguson, Missouri, also sells tear gas canisters to governments using these weapons against pro-democracy protestors in Yemen, Tunisia, Israel, Bahrain and more.  Pennsylvania based CSI (Combined Systems Incorporated) and CTS (Combined Tactical Systems) tear gas canisters have killed dozens in Egypt and Palestine.  They also sell to the Oakland Police Department.  These companies demonstrate and sell their weapons at expos such as Urban Shield-- a trade show and training exercise for SWAT teams and police agencies that bring local, national and international law enforcement agencies together with “defense industry contractors” to provide training and introduce new weapons to potential markets.  Department of Homeland Security’s grant programs-- such as the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), a $500 million (plus) grant that strengthens police militarization and boosts profits to these companies-- provides multiple paths for our tax dollars to be applied to mounting war industries.  According to market research firm Visiongain "nonlethal weapons" are a 1.6 billion a year business.

People imprisoned in MOCC, however, are not alone in their struggle to stop the growth of war industries, domestically.  They continue in an expansive context of resistance.  1980’s activists chained themselves to the gates of CSI headquarters in Saltsburg, PA.   In 2011, Suez port workers refused to sign for a 7-ton shipment of CSI Gas in Egypt.  In 2014, the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC), Critical Resistance (CR), International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), and the War Resisters League (WRL) came together in Oakland, building the Stop Urban Shield Coalition Committee to protest Urban Shield, ousting the weapons expo from the city.  Physicians for Human Rights have conducted two landmark studies on the long-term impact of tear gas exposure during the 1987 South Korean and recent Bahrain uprisings.  After multiple costly lawsuits and growing opposition, police departments in Ottawa, Ontario; Berkeley, California; and Tucson, Arizona discontinued the use of OC sprays.  Hundreds of people incarcerated in US prisons are resisting by telling their stories of abuse through tear gas and other chemical weapons.  While obstacles remain great to extend the ban of tear gas in warfare to domestic use, the courageous testimonies from US prisons reveal venom from hidden depths that must be eradicated.  It is clear that all teargas use violates human health and rights.  In the face of extreme, risky, and what some consider "hopeless" conditions, however, the testifiers of these abuses possess a rich resilience that may prove to be it's own powerful antidote.

YaliniDream is a performing artist, facilitator, organizer, teacher, consultant, and believer in radical nonviolence.  She is a volunteer with the War Resisters League.   Since Feb 2014, she and other WRL volunteers have been in correspondence with people in US prisons abused by chemical weapons. @yalinidream