The Abuse Goes On: The Corrupting Dynamics of Power in a Texas Prison (2017)

Self-portrait 2013

Self-portrait 2013

Character Split

It’s a truism that power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But that’s not the end of the story.

In Amerika, prisons constitute the most absolute exercise of state power. Within their confines, officials control the lives, means of survival, and quality of life of their captives, and use that power to control, manipulate, and compel submission of the prisoners to various ends.

In my 27 years of imprisonment I have witnessed that some people are more susceptible to the corrupting influences of such power than others, but none are immune.

I have found too that many people in society disbelieve how completely these environments transform and deform the characters of “normal” people when they pass through the prison gates as employees. Most seem to believe they bring with them the same morals, sense of social responsibility and consideration toward their fellow persons that they observe in society. While initially some do or may try, their “normal” character quickly breaks down and a different personality emerges. A well known experiment by psychiatrist Philip Zimbardo, conducted at Stanford University in 1973 gave powerful proof of this. In his experiment Zimbardo selected 21 normal, intelligent, and stable students to create a simulated prison in the university’s basement. Based on coin flips, half were given roles of prison guards and the other half, of prisoners. Zimbardo described the frightening results:

“At the end of only six days we had to close down our mock prison because what we saw was frightening. It was no longer apparent to us or most of the subjects where they ended and their roles began. The majority had indeed become ‘prisoners’ or ‘guards,’ no longer able to clearly differentiate between role-playing and self. There were dramatic changes in virtually every aspect of their behavior, thinking and feeling. In less than a week, the experience of imprisonment undid (temporarily) a lifetime of learning; human values were suspended, self-concepts were challenged, and the ugliest most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced. We were horrified, because we saw boys (‘guards’) treat other boys as if they were despicable animals, taking pleasure in cruelty, while other boys (‘prisoners’) became servile, dehumanized robots, who thought only of escape, of their own survival, and of their own mounting hatred of the guards.”[1]

In a similar context, U.S. courts have also recognized that, “prison guards may be more vulnerable to the corrupting influence of unchecked authority than most people.”[2] I would add that cops are no less “vulnerable,” and the routine brutality and killings that the poor and people of color suffer at their hands is the product of this. And as the late attorney Johnnie Cochran once noted, the courts have long been complicit in, condoned, and protected cops against liability for, these behaviors.[3] But in the prison context I want to examine these corrupting tendencies, some environmental factors that encourage them, and base this on some specific examples (of which my own setting affords many).

I want to do this because I’ve found that most outside people are reluctant to challenge prison abuses, including prisoners’ own loved ones. Which often results from their disbelief that officials actually behave as they do.

I’ve witnessed and heard more times than I care to remember; my peers express a lack of outside support against abuses, because those they report abuses to (and most often it’s their own loved ones), simply don’t believe them. Either they outright refuse to accept that officials do what they complained of, or they defer to the lying denials or promises to investigate and resolve the reported situation made by some official the outside person has contacted in following up on the prisoner’s complaint.

Essentially, outside folks tend to blindly trust and defer to “authority” figures, believing that those entrusted with government power exercise it responsibly and in good faith. As the Stanford prison experiment demonstrated, the reality is just the opposite.

I also want to show how easily everyday people can become violent abusers in service to oppressive power, just as common Germans did during the Nazi era.

But let’s start with some specific examples.

Persistent Abuse

On December 21, 2016, on top of having a substantial amount of my property taken, I was assaulted by guards who gassed me while I was handcuffed from behind and locked inside a cell; whereupon they refused to have me, the cell and my in-cell linen decontaminated. Several abuse reports I wrote following this included some mention of misuse of gas at the prison.[4] By referring to those articles, the reader can get a sense of the prevalent abuse of gas which has been acknowledged and strongly condemned in court proceedings and the media, without me restating it here.

But despite those exposures and their generating a bit of public stir and preparations for future possible litigations, the mistreatments continue, and by many of the same officials. As testament to the frequency of such ongoing abuses, note the close timeframe in which the three incidents described below occurred (namely February 19, 21, and 23, 2017); and in each case the abused prisoner is documented as mentally ill. All incidents described herein occurred at the Clements Unit prison in Amarillo, Texas.

The Feb. 19th incident was instigated by lieutenant Chad Perry, the very same guard who tried to murder another prisoner on July 2, 2016, by gassing him, despite the fact that he was under medical “do not gas” orders, because he suffers from a respiratory disease.[5]

On Feb. 19th, Perry, along with several other guards dressed out in body armor, went to cell E-116, which housed a prisoner named Neighbors, to take all his property, because Perry alleged he was masturbating [!?]. Not only is taking a prisoner’s property for this reason absurd and illegal, but other prisoners witnessed that Neighbors was actually only shaking a bottle. I’ve personally witnessed Perry take prisoners’ property for no reason other than their saying something cross to him, usually in response to his own unprovoked verbal abuse. In turn he’d lie saying the prisoner had some item covering his cell door, then organize a team of guards dressed out in body armor with gas, and if the unsuspecting (and understandably outraged) prisoner hesitated to cooperate in having his things taken for no reason, Perry would promptly gas and send the team in to assault the prisoner and remove him and his property from the cell by force.

In this case, however, Neighbors submitted to being handcuffed and was brought out, legs shackled, and moved to another cell two cells down. Perry then had the team of armored guards lay Neighbors on the floor in back of the cell where he could not be seen on the audio-video camera that was present and recording the incident. The leg shackles were removed. He was left in the handcuffs and the guards began backing out of the cell as he lay on the floor.

As the last guard backed out a sergeant Samuel Barrientos suddenly sprayed gas into the cell like a signal, and the group of guards ran back in yelling repeatedly, “Stop resisting,” while sounds of punches landing and slams could be heard.

The guards then backed out the cell, closed the door, removed the cuffs. and left Neighbors naked in the empty gas-contaminated cell.

Approximately five hours later Neighbors was met by the team again and sprayed in the face with gas, because be understandably didn’t want to submit to an order to be handcuffed (and possibly beaten) again. He then allowed himself to be cuffed and was placed naked on a gurney and wheeled out of the pod.

A white guard was later heard bragging to a white prisoner that Perry “took care of business,” because “Neighbors’s Black ass was talkin’ shit.”

The Feb. 21st incident was led by lieutenant Crystal Turner; the same guard who was involved in my own incident of Dec. 21st. The victim was the same Louis Johnson who was gassed on Jan. 13, 2017, and left in a gas saturated jumper which he gave me a piece of to share with others on the outside as evidence of his abuse. In fact I showed the completely saturated piece of cloth to attorneys who visited me on Jan. 25, 2017. I described Louis’s incident in a separate article.[6]

One of the attorneys, Benjamin Haile, described the occasion in a letter to another attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project thusly, “When I visited [Rashid], he showed me a piece of clothing from another prisoner he had wrapped in plastic and saved. It was shocking. It was about a 7×10 inch square, and it was deeply discolored with the dye that is added to the OC spray. This prisoner too had no access to decontaminated clothing….”

But to return to the Feb. 21st incident, Louis was at his cell front talking to Turner out the open handcuff slot on his cell door, attempting to have guards deliver his commissary order to him or return his ID card which he’d given them to place a commissary order. They were refusing to do both.

Turner and a sergeant Joe Preciado, (along with a nurse Tammy Williams), had apparently conspired to gas Louis, with Turner talking to him on the right side of the slot to distract him while Preciado crept up on the left side with a can of gas on the right side of his hip hidden out of Louis’s view.

As Louis trained his attention on Turner, Preciado ran up to the slot and suddenly sprayed Louis flush in the face. Turner then closed the slot. Williams, who was standing out of view as this occurred, then came to the cell, looked at Louis’s face and they left. The entire outside of the slot and door was covered with gas, as was the inside of the cell and Louis’s blanket and jumper. They refused his request for decontamination and decontaminated linen. Instead they blushed as several prisoners in the pod applauded and cheered, begging for an encore.

Finally, the Feb. 23rd incident was at the instigation of captain Patricia Flowers, the same guard who instigated the Dec. 21st incident with me. On Feb. 23rd while making rounds in E-pod, she proceeded to beat and kick on prisoner Michael Ryan’s cell door. In turn Ryan gave her the finger, to which she replied, “I got you.”

Flowers then had Sgt. Preciado and a team of body armored guards confront Ryan with a threat of force to take all his property. She lied, claiming he had his cell light covered. When Ryan was brought out of the cell in cuffs he stated he had a razor blade hidden in the cell and would kill himself if put back in the cell. The cell was not searched and he was put back in with nothing but his boxer shorts.

Once the cell door was closed and the audio-video camera that was present to record the situation was turned off, Preciado told Ryan, “Kill yourself,” then left. Another guard then brought him a sheet to facilitate the threatened act. Ryan used the sheet to cover his cell door window and proceeded to cut himself up.

His window was still covered over an hour later when the next shift came on, despite guards supposedly making rounds every 30 minutes to ensure the safety of each prisoner. The relieving guards, Jerry Strickert and another, discovered Ryan in his mutilated state, and eventually he was taken to another building and placed on suicide watch. Witnessing prisoners report there was blood all over the cell walls.

Several prisoners requested witness forms of the relieving sergeant King, so they could submit statements about Ryan’s treatment. King refused them stating there was no use of force on Ryan, and threatened if anyone wrote grievances about what Preciado said to Ryan, they’d receive a disciplinary case for lying.

It is noteworthy that nurse Tammy Williams is frequently present but out of view, when foul acts by guards are plotted, as she was when I was assaulted on Dec. 21st. (She is also a defendant in several pending lawsuits concerning prisoners killed at this Clements Unit prison as a result of staff abuses and medical neglect). She is married to a guard at the prison.

From Mice to Sewer Rats

As I’ve pointed out, I’ve yet to find a guard who’s proven immune to the corrupting influences of the prison environment. Especially those working in segregation, where prisoners are kept locked inside secure cells and only brought out in restraints. Thus guards are particularly safe from potential physical harm at the hands of those they abuse.

In this situation these guards feel protected from any potential consequences for their abuses, and feel empowered by having use of teams of body armored guards with gas and shields to enforce their ill will against isolated prisoners. Essentially, it’s a coward’s paradise.

Which brings me to these sorts of guards who prove most readily corruptible by the environment and similar “gunslinger” occupations. A common trait I’ve noticed in the most persistently abusive guards who like to wear their petty authority on their sleeves, is they’re obvious social misfits, and many are highly sensitive to insult and criticism. They appear socially awkward, the types who’ve never had power in their personal lives or over others beyond children perhaps. Many are small, diminutive, and not particularly attractive by conventional standards.

Joe Preciado offers such an example, as does Flowers and Turner.

Preciado once boasted to me, that of all the sergeants at the prison he has had more “uses of force and property confiscations than any other,” as though this were a measure of his worth. And by uses of force he meant not uses of force himself against anyone, nor on equal terms, but rather his involvement in (often creating) situations where he deployed gas against a defenseless prisoner or had an extraction team of five or more guards in body armor invade a prisoner’s cell after gassing him. In his mind and that of others like him, these are perceived as heroic deeds and form the basis of their “manly” posturing.

If Preciado weren’t so primed to instigate such abuses, one would find his provocative and confrontational airs outright comical. He being the last person who’d look for a fight in any environment where he had to face his opponent on equal terms.

A short pudgy fella, he’s clearly in no condition to do any direct fighting. In fact he’s been a laughing stock of the prison since one of his lower ranking colleagues blackened his eye a couple years back, when he attempted to use his rank to compel the guy to end a relationship with his estranged wife who also works at the prison.

As eager as he is to provoke altercations where he can speciously justify a gas assault on a prisoner or use an extraction team to attack a man 5-against-1, I’ve witnessed him several times take off running when he’s found himself confronted by a situation where a prisoner he’s provoked has pushed his way out of his cell past an extraction team of invading guards or tried to hit him upside the head with an object or liquid thrown from an open cuff slot.

Guards like Preciado are famous for hiding behind a team and gas, and using the inherent safety of the environment to insult and abuse prisoners while largely avoiding any consequences. In fact, Flowers, Turner and Perry all have this in common, and one can see in them an extreme sensitivity to insult or a prisoner’s refusal to defer and submit totally to them. In fact this tendency is often what prompts them to create a pretext to abuse force on them and/or take their property.

Both Flowers and Turner are diminutive and ‘unattractive’ women. And clearly find in their prison jobs, roles they could never assume in their personal lives, where they are able to insult and call down violence against, and induce the submission of any number of men who are themselves conditioned to surviving in physically aggressive environments. They clearly would not, could not, behave as they do if they did not have the safety of the environment and an armed support staff to back them up.

Chad Perry is no different. A slim white guy with little to no muscle tone, he’s quick to antagonize and set prisoners up for abuse and the taking of their property. But in a direct confrontation with those he targets he’d fail miserably. In fact this was proven back in 2011, when he unexpectedly was met by one of those he’d been abusing face-to-face.

Perry, then a low ranking guard, along with a number of his peers who enjoyed targeting prisoners, Blacks in particular, had subjected one prisoner, Dylan Carter, to repeated abuses, denied meals, taking of his property, and so on. They tried repeatedly to provoke him to allow them to confront him with an extraction team, so they could assault him under the guise of conducting a valid cell extraction on him, which they commonly do to others. But Carter wouldn’t bite.

On August 5, 2011, the tables turned. In a security glitch, (some believe Perry’s peers deliberately set him up), Carter’s cell door opened just as Perry walked unawares into the cellblock right beside the open cell. Carter admits he then stepped out of the cell in front of Perry, and slugged Perry in the face sending Perry sliding across the pod floor on his back, with blood streaming from his nose. Contrary to his typical arrogance and provocative posture under circumstances where he’d felt protected by his peers and the ‘security’ of solitary confinement, when confronted face-to-face by Carter, Perry, like most abusive guards, put up no resistance. Instead he fled to get medical help and file a disciplinary infraction against Carter for “assault.” But somehow he forgot to mention all the illegal abuses he’d subjected Carter to before that.

None Are Immune

An important detail to note is that each of these chronic abusers are ranking guards—sergeants, lieutenants, and captains. And in each of the mentioned cases they proved to be the most deplorable, because they targeted the most vulnerable of people—the mentally ill. Which to my thinking is like doing the same to a child.

Obviously, each of these individuals enters the prison environment with a particular set of deranged insecurities and a sense of meaninglessness, powerlessness, and having something to prove from unfulfilling personal lives, which they look to compensate for in the absolute power they are able to wield against us when they pass through the prison gates. An environment in which they, schizophrenic like, transform into wholly different people.

But, they are not alone in the inclination to morph into different people when they enter the prisons. In fact their peers all participate in such abuses, tacitly enabling them by going along with, and remaining silent about, them, and confirming reports to cover them up in the official records when and as instructed.

I’ve known a tiny handful of guards who’ve expressed the desire to speak out against the abuses that pervade all prisons, but they have no one to go to and if they did, they’d almost certainly face retaliation. So, they too conform and go along. In all respects, there’s a powerful drive to conform, especially when ranking officials are leading the charge and setting the terms for systemic abuse.

But as studies of the German Nazi experience have shown, while some people are predetermined to extreme violence and to abuse of power, everyday, “stable” people will also adopt the same behaviors when the environment is conducive to such behaviors. Especially in absolute environments, like U.S. prisons, where, as the Stanford experiment and the courts recognize, systemic abuse is the norm. As the Nazi experience demonstrated:

“It makes a big difference what sort of personality structure is confronted with what sort of situation [, but] we should not overestimate the significance of personal difference. As the Holocaust and the Nazi war of annihilation show, the vast majority of civilians, as well as soldiers, SS men, and police officers, behaved in discriminatory, violent, and inhumane fashion if the situation at hand seemed to encourage and promote such behavior. Only a tiny minority proved capable of humane resistance. According to the standards of the time, humane behavior was deviant, and brutality was conformist. For that reason, the entire collection of events known as the ‘Third Reich’ and the violence it produced can be seen as a gigantic experiment, showing what sane people who see themselves as good are capable of if they consider something to be appropriate, sensible, or correct. The proportion of people who were psychologically inclined toward violence, discrimination, and excess totaled, as it does in all other social contexts as well, 5 to 10 percent.

“In psychological terms, the inhabitants of the Third Reich were as normal as people in all other societies at all other times. The spectrum of perpetrators was a cross section of normal society. No specific group of people proved immune to temptation, in Gunther Anders’s phrase, of ‘inhumanity with impunity.’ The real-life experiment that was the Third Reich did not reduce the variables of personality to absolute zero. But it showed them to be of comparatively slight, indeed often negligible, importance.”[7]

The behavior of Germans during the Nazi heyday did not deviate in any substantial degree from that of Amerikans, who practiced genocide, racism, and all manner of violent extremes, which the Nazis actually only imitated, against Natives and people of Afrikan descent. So it is no wonder that such abuses are still practiced within and by its absolute institutions, and especially against disadvantaged people and people of color.

But there are likely those who’d doubt that everyday Amerikans today could behave as the Nazis did, despite what the Stanford experiment showed and the courts have recognized. One further experiment demonstrated clearly that they could and would, and as my writings demonstrate, they very well do—every day. The experiment in question was conducted by psychology professor Stanley Milgrim, who wanted to understand how common, everyday Germans could commit the atrocities they did in the concentration camps and mass exterminate others without hesitation. He intended to first test his experiment in Amerika, then to take it to Germany, where he felt the population was conditioned to the sort of obedience that his theories required for a scientific analysis. The first experiment conducted in New Haven, Connecticut, however, showed he didn’t need to go to the expense of traveling abroad. “I found so much obedience,” he said, “I hardly saw need of taking the experiment to Germany.”

The experiment put random everyday people to the test of seeing how many would, under directions of an apparent authority figure, deliver a lethal shock to another person, as they screamed in agony. All concerned were themselves shocked to find that over 60 percent of the test subjects went along as instructed. Milgrim’s findings from all his accumulated data proved conclusively, in everyday people, “the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority….” [8] This accounts for a powerful drive in these prison settings for those who might not readily commit abuses to do so under the direction of ranking guards like Flowers, Turner, Perry, and Preciado.

Also, the culture of prison guards is much like that of cops and soldiers, which induces loyalty and camaraderie that serves to unite them in a culture of abuse and a way of seeing their environment and those in it in a light very different from that of the common citizenry. This generates a sort of closed society and a shared perception within it that defies the morals of everyday people. And, like with other relationships, they assume a very different role within the prison than they would in other settings. That role being consistent with that which they are conditioned to believe is appropriate to the environment. Just as people behave very differently in relationships with their boss than they might their spouse and their children than with a customer at work. These relationships are compartmentalized and call for a different character in each. And in that one recognizes that behaviors engaged in in one relationship may seem inappropriate to others, they are inclined to keep those behaviors concealed within the circle of partners in that particular relationship.

In this regard, I have always recognized that guards, like soldiers, certainly don’t share much of what they actually do to other people in their workplace, with others in society, since they would certainly have been judged harshly and even as pathological by their social peers. So their behaviors remain confined to the circle of those who share their occupation, since only they could “understand” why they behave as they do based upon the contrived culture and the sense that they are dealing with people they’ve been conditioned to see as less than human and as enemies, namely prisoners.

Conclusion

Readers would likely doubt that they would themselves behave as the guards described herein do, or that they would go along with and conform to an environment where such abuses are the common practice. I would beg to differ, given the nature of the society in which these prisons lie, and its treatment of the mentally and socially ill as enemies and not people to be treated with compassion and in need of healing. But, moreover, a telling indication of whether you might conform is whether, as those Germans who claimed not to have known of the crimes carried out in their backyards proclaimed, if they’d have only known they would have risen up in resistance.

Well, now you know about the abuses that pervade these prisons. So, what are you going to do about it? Silence is acquiescence.

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!

All Power to the People!

 

Notes

 

[1] See, Philip Zimbardo, “On the Ethics of Intervention in Human Psychological Research: With Special Reference to the Stanford Prison Experiment,” Cognition 2, No. 2 (1973), 243-44; Philip G. Zimbardo, et al., “A Pirandellian Prison: The Mind is A Formidable Jailer,” New York Times Magazine, April 8, 1973, 38, 60.

[2] Landman v. Peyton, 370 F.2d 135, 140 (4th Cir. 1966).

[3] Johnnie Cochran, A Lawyer’s Life, pp. 14-15.

[4] See, e.g., Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Bound and Gassed: My Reward for Exposing Abuses and Killings of Texas Prisoners” (2017); “Texas Officials Try to Gas Another Asthmatic Prisoner to Death” (2017); “Life’s A Gas in Texas Prisons: The Frequent Abuse of Chemical Weapons” (2017), etc. All available at rashidmod.com.

[5] Ibid., see “Texas Officials Try to Gas Another Asthmatic Prisoner to Death” (2017).

[6] Op cit, note 4, “Life’s a Gas in Texas Prisons.”

[7] Sonke Neitzel & Harald Welzer, Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing and Dying (N.Y: Vintage Books, 2013), pp. 24-25.

[8] All variations of this experiment and several others can be read about in Milgrim’s book, Obedience to Authority (N.Y.: Harper & Rowe, 1974).

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