Life’s A Gas in Texas Prisons: The Frequent Abuse of Chemical Weapons (2017)

texas“As the evidence in the instant case shows, tear gas has been unnecessarily employed on a number of occasions to brutalize [Texas] inmates….[I]n most instances of unwarranted use, the chemicals were administered by high ranking prison officials for deliberately punitive purposes. Those employees have never been disciplined or reprimanded for their activities.”[1]



The Abuse is Officially Documented

The above quote came from a 1980 federal court ruling in the widely known case of Ruiz v. Estelle, where Texas prisoners challenged a litany of abusive and illegal conditions in the Texas Department of Criminal (In)Justice (TDCJ). While the case resulted in a range of reforms of the more barbaric conditions in the TDCJ, abuses of physical force and beatings of prisoners by guards persisted. The case remained active for over 2 decades, as the court struggled to reign in those and other abuses. Upon a review of conditions in the TDCJ the court in 2001 stated:

 “the court was reacquainted with the culture of sadistic and malicious violence that continues to pervade the Texas prison system [and] violates contemporary standards of decency…. [T]he abuse of force has resulted not from deficient policies, but from the seeming inability of correctional officers to keep their hands off prisoners.”[1]

Among these findings of abuse the court noted the continued abuse of gas on prisoners. The presiding judge, William Wayne Justice, tried but failed abysmally to restrain these abuses, and in 2002 the case was terminated by the 5th Circuit Appeals Court over Justice’s efforts to keep the case open to maintain federal oversight of TDCJ. As one report described the situation:

“Despite the court’s damning findings, then-governor of Texas Governor George W. Bush paid little attention to the ruling. ‘The governor’s idea of reform was to build more prisons and tighten their hold,’ writes [Robert] Perkinson in Texas Tough, and ‘there was little that an isolated district court judge could do about it.’  The case was appealed to the federal Fifth Circuit, which ordered it terminated in 2002, without it having the reforming impact Judge Justice intended.”[2]

Not only was the suit terminated without resolving the violent abuse, but it escalated, especially the abuse of gas. A 2014 Texas Tribune article reported:

“Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, noted another trend she called troubling in the use of chemical agents, like pepper spray against inmates…. Last February [2013], correctional officers [at the Connally Unit in Beeville, Tx] used chemical agents 61 times on inmates because they refused to follow ‘strip and handcuff procedures.’ Agents were used another 32 times because inmates were blocking a meal tray slot or covering a cell door. ‘They’re all where they won’t comply with an order,’ Deitch said. ‘There’s no particular indication that there’s an immediate danger of any kind.’”[3]

From Witness to Victim

Upon my assignment to the TDCJ during mid-2013 from the Oregon prison system, I was to bear immediate witness to this culture of abuse of force, and especially chemical agents on prisoners by guards. At the William P. Clements Unit, where I’ve been confined since August 2013, the abuse of gas is so frequent, I filed grievances almost weekly against bystander gas assaults. I was regularly made to suffer contamination with gas due to guards creating, instigating, inventing and outright lying to speciously justifying using large quantities of gas on others in my cellblock.[4] In fact reporters found from investigations that Clements Unit has the TDCJ’s highest rate of major uses of force, and gas in particular, of all TDCJ prisons.

A study done by the Texas Tribune of TDCJ violence, from 2006-2012, found “officers used chemical agents to subdue inmates more than 1500 times,” during this period.[5] Michele Deitch, mentioned above, found these numbers “overwhelming.” The report found, ‘‘officers were involved in a ‘major use of force’ — reported whenever officers force inmates to do something against their will — more than 3400 times during the six-year period.”[6]

But not only was I to repeatedly witness and suffer bystander gas assaults, I also witnessed guards kill an asthmatic prisoner by gassing him repeatedly as he lay helpless and unresponsive in medical distress on his cell floor, where he’d lain for over 3 days. This prisoner, Christopher Woolverton, was under medical “do not gas” orders because of his respiratory condition.[7] Following my role in exposing that killing and persisting in publicizing abuses and other prisoner deaths at the unit, which occurred with especial frequency in the disciplinary pod I was initially kept in (E-pod), I was given an early level raise which permitted me to be moved off E-pod, and I was moved to the quietest pod in the solitary unit in a cell in the far back corner. Guards told me I was moved to this pod and cell to stop me from publicizing incidents between them and other prisoners. But I was still to witness and publicize through published articles, routine abuses even in the quieter cellblock. I also was sent written accounts from E-pod of abuses going on there by others still in that pod. In H-pod I witnessed another attempt by guards to kill another prisoner with gas who suffered respiratory disease and was under medical “do not gas” orders.[8]

My efforts to expose the abuses brought unwanted attention to and litigation against the prison, which went all the way up to the Director’s office. Subsequently when another prisoner died under suspicious circumstances, numerous guards were disciplined and the wardens at the unit retired. Also the entire ranking staff of the solitary unit was moved out and all new staff brought in. This occurred several times. The most recent rotation brought in a new solitary unit Captain Patricia Flowers and Major Leeroy Cano. Early on Flowers threatened that she would teach me to mind my own business and would to this end take all my personal property.

On December 21, 2016, I had most of my belongings taken at her behest, and was, while handcuffed behind my back and securely confined inside the cell, sprayed with a large burst of gas. I was then left in the cell with gas contaminated clothes, bedding, mattress, and cell surfaces.

It was days before I would get the gassed clothing and sheets exchanged. I had to await routine necessities exchange days to do so. I remained in the gas contaminated cell until I was moved out on January 5, 2017, and did not receive uncontaminated mattress and blankets until January 14, 2017.

In fact just the day before, I witnessed yet another abuse of gas on another prisoner, Louis Johnson, #1618910. On that day, at approximately 11:40 am, Louis was brought into the pod by lieutenant Anastasio Madrid, sergeant Zachary Cameron, sergeant Joshua Carrillo, and several other guards. Interestingly, Carrillo performed the investigation of grievances I’d filed concerning the gas assault on me on December 21st and the denied decontamination. Yet, he participated in just the same sort of abuse of Louis Johnson.

While Carrillo’s investigation of my incident was still pending, I stood observing as they “escorted” Louis up the stairs, with him stumbling blindly (with eyes closed). He was covered in gas with large orange gas stains across the front and back of his white prison jumper.

He was held against a wall in the pod for several minutes then placed and left in a completely empty cell in the pod. He was not decontaminated, not given any instructions on how to decontaminate himself, and was left with no clothing except the gas-covered jumpsuit.

After he was left in this condition for several hours I called down and told him to send me the jumpsuit so I could send portions of it with the stains on it out as evidence of the abuse he was made to endure, being left with only gas-covered clothing to wear. When guards heard us talking he was told he was to be moved to E-pod. But before he moved he did manage to tear off and “fish” me a large patch of the jumpsuit. He was moved at 4:25 pm and made to wear the same gassed jumper when he left the pod. He was escorted in this move by sergeant Arleen Waak, the same sergeant that had me gassed on December 21st and left me contaminated, and several other guards.

No Avenues of Redress

In the face of this long history of lawless abuse, it’s important to point out the lack of any meaningful channels of redress within the TDCJ, for abused prisoners. The TDCJ has actually gone to the extent of systemically blocking prisoners from avenues of redress while suppressing public exposure and accountability.

In fact at just the point that violent abuses were escalating in the TDCJ, as reported by the Texas Tribune and I was regularly grieving bystander gas assaults (showing the frequency of abuses of gas — almost daily — in just my own cellblock), TDCJ officials suddenly banned prisoners from using the prisoner grievance procedure to complain about abuses of force unless the involved guard(s) themselves first reported the use of force as excessive [!?]. They further violated TDCJ grievance policy by making the grievance policy itself no longer available for prisoners to read and they changed many of the issues that could be grieved; I address these matters in a separate article.[9]

This was done with a grievance procedure that the Estelle court already recognized provided absolutely no remedy for abused prisoners. Judge Justice found under the preexisting TDCJ grievance procedure prisoners’ complaints:

“were neither investigated nor thoroughly reviewed. The responses were often nothing more than standard stock responses [such as]… ‘your allegations were denied;’ ‘no evidence could be found to support your claim;’   ‘This office will take no further action in this matter at this time.’”[10]

In fact I received these same stock responses to most all my grievances.

And to further drive home the point that TDCJ refuses to redress abuses of force, there exists within the system an ombudsman’s office that is supposed to investigate and act upon complaints of prisoner abuse reported by outside persons. As reflected in this office’s response to outside complaints made about the gas assault on me on December 21st, the ombudsman declined to answer the substance of the complaints stating investigations concerning uses of force are deemed ‘‘confidential and not releasable to the public.’’ So with respect to the most intractable form of abuse and the most obviously brutal, the TDCJ has made its every complaint channel inaccessible and unresponsive to complaints. One cannot but see the systemic   methodology for allowing inhumane abuses and immunizing abusers and the system from any consequences. Readers should take a lesson from this when hearing cops and prison officials proclaiming abusers are a handful of bad apples and their systems operate to give justice to victims of abuse. It’s all a lie!

Of further interest is the ombudsman’s office allows guards who are the subordinates and colleagues and participants in abuses, to conduct the staged investigations of outside complaints made to the office. It’s nothing but a buddy system. In fact the protectionist mentality of TDCJ officials is captured in the smug slogan literally printed on the back of guards’ uniform caps, which states “Taking care of our own!” I call it their gang motto. It speaks for itself.

Chemical Weapons

Also problematic is the false information prison officials and cops frequently spread about these chemical weapons being essentially harmless and benign, which they’re anything but. As noted by studies, like the North Carolina and Duke University’s 2004 paper “Health Hazards of Pepper Spray,” besides the irritants in what’s commonly known as pepper spray or O.C. spray, these chemical agents contain: propellants and other chemicals that “can produce adverse cardiac, respiratory, and neurologic effects, including arrhythmias and sudden death.”[11] Also the inflammatory effects cause damage to the eyes (permanent damage to the cornea with frequent exposures), membranes, and air passages in the lungs, the stomach, and any other parts of the body it contacts.[12]

These agents are known to be fatal to people with respiratory conditions like asthma. As I pointed out, I witnessed an asthmatic prisoner die several hours after being gassed in this unit.

Worse still is these sorts of agents have proven lethal when used in even small quantities, like 6 grams, inside small enclosures like prison cells.[13] In fact the Estelle court found that 6 ounces is more like the quantity that TDCJ officials spray in on prisoners inside cells.[14] Courts have upheld the use of these chemicals on prisoners under guards’ and cops’ claims that they readily wash off and dissipate in less than an hour. As the courts have stated,

“the fact that prisoners were permitted to wash off mace shortly after its application has been a significant factor in upholding the use of mace.”[15]

As outside witnesses can attest, the gas used on prisoners in the TDCJ doesn’t readily wash off and doesn’t dissipate after short periods.

On December 22, 2016 I mailed out small samples of the orange gas-stained bed sheets and paint from the cell wall as evidence of the contamination I was left to live with following being gassed the day before. I wrapped and sealed the samples inside clear plastic. The recipient received the samples on December 29th, and she noted immediately upon opening the mailing envelope that the gas was still active, not dissipated even after the passage of days. She wrote me saying as soon as she opened the envelope she tried to call another supporter, but

“I could hardly speak because I started to choke. I immediately went to the copy store where I had everything scanned, even before reading it, so I could send it out immediately…. The woman who owns the copy store and does the scanning for me…. also noticed the choking feeling from handling the material (even with the plastic cover).”

My situation was a bit worse. I was made to remain locked inside a cell with gas on everything, including all linen, mattress, blankets, clothing, walls, floor, etc. And the gas wouldn’t wash out nor was I given anything with which to clean it from the cell and in-cell items. In the solitary confinement unit in the prison each cell has a shower inside. Every time I used the shower the humidity and steam would reactivate the gas causing it to become airborne as if freshly sprayed into the cell. The gas has a chemical and/or oil base and stain that causes it to seep into surfaces and fabrics so it doesn’t wash off or out, and humidity and heat reactivates it especially on body surfaces, such as when the body temperature rises when one sleeps under covers (recall all my linen and bedding were contaminated with gas also). One generally doesn’t know what surfaces have gas on them except those areas that it came in direct contact with and bear its dark orange stain, so that one may touch a contaminated area then touch another part of their body absent-mindedly. Then when one becomes involved in any exertion or the environment becomes humid or warmer, the gas reactivates on whatever parts of the body it’s come into contact with. Such an experience is nothing short of physical torture for anyone other than a person with a high pain threshold. These agents are no less a weapon than the agents that U.S. officials often decry other governments for allegedly deploying against their own populations. And it’s no less an abuse of human rights. But what’s most ironic is these abuses are well documented, they cannot be denied, yet officials never mention them when they self-righteously pontificate about the virtues of Amerika as a supposed society based on laws and not passions, and criticize the human rights records of other societies as if to hold themselves up as the superior example of civility and order. Bullshit! Like Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said, one only need look inside a society’s prisons to see the true measure of its civility. Amerika is a barbarian in a business suit.

Dare to Struggle Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!


[1] Ruiz v. Johnson, 154 F. Supp. 2d 975, 986 (S.D.TEX. 2001)

[2] “Texas Lockdown: Solitary Confinement in the Lone Star State”

[3] “Force Against Texas Inmates on the Rise,” Texas Tribune,

[4] Such bystander gas assaults are in violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights. See, Clement v. Gomez, 298 F. 3d 898, 904-05 (2002). Before prisoners may bring litigation against illegal conditions they must exhaust all available grievance and complaint procedures.

[5] Brandi Grissom, “Violence Behind Bars: A tie to Mental Illness,” Texas Tribune (Sept. 22, 2013)

[6] Ibid.

[7] I previously contributed to and wrote articles about Woolverton’s incident. See, ‘‘Asthmatic Prisoner Doused with Pepper Spray, Refused Medical Care, Dies: Just Another Day in the Texas Prison System”; “Who’s Lying Now? Official Records Show Texas Officials are Murdering Prisoners”

[8] See, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Texas Officials Try to Gas Another Asthmatic Prisoner to Death” (2017)

[9] See, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “You Will Suffer in Silence” (2017) at

[10] Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 2d 855, 922 and n. 112 (S.D. Tex. 1999)

[11] Deborah Blum, “About Pepper Spray,” Scientific American (Nov. 21, 2011)

[12] Ibid.

[13] Williams v. Benjamin, 77 F. 3d 756 763 (4th Cir. 1996)

[14] Op cit., note 11 at pp. 935-36

[15] Op cit., note 14 at p. 763


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