Chemical Weapons Used in U.S. Prisons

rashid-2013-self-portrait1Tear gas—a banned chemical weapon

Poison gases were first developed and widely used as battlefield weapons during World War I. Among those weapons were chlorine gas, mustard gas, and the benignly named “tear gas,” all of which have similar effects, toxicity and lethality.

Because of universal aversion to these weapons, a Geneva protocol was issued in 1925 banning their use in war. Subsequent international bans followed due to the persistent use of chemical weapons in war by some countries.

U.S. intervenes against chemical weapons abroad

Playing to the international aversion to these weapons, U.S. rulers have denounced Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as a monster based upon repeated accusations of his using chlorine gas against rebels and civilians during Syria’s ongoing civil war.

In fact, posing as a moral authority, the U.S. led Britain and France in joint missile strikes against the Syrian government on April 13, 2018, in response to accusations that Assad had once again gassed Syrians on April 7th.

Donald Trump then went further to threaten sanctions against Russian chemical companies for their role in supposedly enabling Assad’s chemical weapons production.

…While abusing chemical weapons at home

As all this U.S. fakery was going on, I sat in my solitary confinement cell in one of Florida’s infamously abusive, corrupt and racist prisons, processing the countless times I’ve witnessed, and experienced U.S. prison officials use military grade chemical weapons—and often with deadly results—on defenseless U.S. prisoners—and this for any reason or no reason at all. An AlterNet article put it into perspective:

“Originally launched as a tool of French combat during World War I, tear gas has been used around the world over the past century to enforce colonial rule, quell popular protests and aid in ethnic cleansing of civilians. This ‘riot control agent’ was banned as a ‘method of war’ by the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms control treaty that went into effect in 1997 and now binds in nearly 200 countries (although numerous states are in violation.) Yet in prisons and jails across the United States, far from any conventional battlefield or public scrutiny, tear gas and other chemical weapons are routinely used against people held captive in enclosed spaces including solitary confinement.” (1)

Chlorine no worse than tear gas

If international military intervention against Syria and sanctions against Russia are justified responses to unproven government use of chemical weapons in Syria, what should be done to stop U.S. officials and their own chemical weapons manufacturers from producing and using military grade chemical weapons on their own subjects?

And not only is the tear gas manufactured and used in Amerika today the same grade of chemical weapon as the World War I-era chlorine gas allegedly being used in Syria, but U.S. manufacturers have been constantly competing to enhance and maximize the potency and injurious effects of their tear gas, free of medical or public oversight and with little regulation. As The Nation confirmed, U.S. tear gas is:

“Continually being modified, tested and retested for improvements. Thanks to thin regulations on so-called ‘less-lethal’ weapons, that testing takes place in the dark, without public disclosure or mandatory medical oversight. That means that testing doesn’t have to be oriented toward minimizing risk: It can focus on maximizing pain.” (2)

A lethal prison weapon

And make no mistake about it, while tear gas is portrayed by officials as “non-lethal,” and “less-lethal,” it is not only lethal, but prison officials use it in quantities and manner that far exceed its known lethal limits. In fact, its very use in prison settings makes it especially lethal, because it is deployed most often inside closed-in cells.

According to federal courts, the “estimated lethal dose” of tear gas when sprayed into closed-in cells is 5-6 grams. (3)

However, the quantities used by the U.S. prison officials inside prisoners’ cells as a matter of course is typically in the hundreds of grams. Six-hundred grams is the quantity generally authorized by prison policy—which is over 100 times the legal estimated lethal dose.

And because characterized as a “non-lethal” weapon, these agents are deployed against prisoners as a first resort to force for the slightest claimed disruption, defiance or infraction committed by them while locked inside a cell.

In Florida’s solitary confinement units, for example, “disruptive behavior” allowing the “use of chemical agents” includes such benign acts as prisoners talking to each other between cells, arguing with staff, etc., which says nothing of the routine practice of guards, outright lying on prisoners to create pretexts to falsely justify maliciously gassing them. Florida prisons are notorious for such abuses. (4)

Actually as a former Florida guard revealed to the Miami Herald, guards are trained as part of a “code” to fabricate reports against prisoners, to speciously justify beating and gassing them.

“Sometimes,” he reflected, ranking officials “will even write [the false reports] for you—all filled with lies” so they can say they beat or gassed someone because they deserved it. (5)

While I was confined in the disciplinary wings—especially B-wing—at Florida State Prison, I witnessed a Lieutenant Stephen Thompson and various guards use such false pretexts to set prisoners up to be gassed, and often beaten too, on an almost daily basis. Many times they just randomly targeted prisoners, or carried out “hits” for other staff who had vendettas or clashed with the prisoner at another prison. Often the prisoners were waylaid and gassed while asleep in their beds or after being left with only boxer shorts in an empty cell, a common practice exposed a few years back at the Northwest Florida Reception Center. (6)

If not for many prisoners having learned improvised methods of protecting themselves from the lethal effects of tear gas in some situations, there would be a great many more prison gas fatalities.

I should add, however, that many fatalities do occur but are effectively covered up by being falsely reported as death by “natural causes,” instead of as murders by asphyxiation. And aren’t these the same sorts of cover-ups U.S. officials accuse Assad of using when he’s been accused of killing Syrians with chlorine gas?

Murders by “natural causes”

I’ve witnessed such murders by “natural causes” up close. One case being the October 2013 killing of Christopher Woolverton, a mentally ill asthmatic man who was confined in solitary with me at the Clements Unit prison in Amarillo, Texas.

After he was left lying unresponsive and in medical distress on his cell’s cold concrete floor for three days by guards and medical and mental health officials, they had Woolverton sprayed with some 600 grams of tear gas—although he was under medical “do not gas” orders because of his asthma. Several hours later he was dead.

Like in the pictures of the Syrians who allegedly died of chlorine gas attacks that went viral on social media on April 7, Woolverton died foaming at the mouth. But while U.S. officials charged those Syrians’ deaths as brutal and barbaric murders, Woolverton’s was dismissed as a routine custodial death by “natural causes.”

The facts surrounding Wolverton’s murder only came to light because I filed grievances in the prison about it and encouraged other prisoner witnesses to also do so, and I publicized it to the outside. (7) As a result, Woolverton’s family read and learned about the situation online (prison officials did not notify them that he was dead,) and they brought a federal wrongful death suit.

U.S. prison deaths like Woolverton’s aren’t uncommon, they’re just rarely publicized.

Another such rarely publicized incident involved a Florida prisoner, Randall Jordan-Aparo, which only came to light because, as in Woolverton’s case, other prisoners exposed it at great personal risk to themselves. In fact officials who then dared to investigate Jordan-Aparo’s death as an unjust killing were retaliated against by administrators at the highest levels of Florida’s prison system, prompting them to file suit, which was settled by Florida officials. (8)

Jordan-Aparo’s case was similar to Woolverton’s. He too was in medical distress and sought medical help when his rare blood condition flared up. As the Miami Herald reported, he cursed at a nurse when they refused to help him:

“After he cursed at [the] nurse, staff forced him into a 13 x 8 cell and gassed him with 600 grams of chemical agents. … Inmates in the area heard him scream: ‘I can’t take it. I can’t take the gas. I need a nurse!’”

“Hours later, Jordan-Aparo was dead. He was found on the floor of the cell with a weathered paperback Bible by his side, and was positioned as if he had spent his last moments gasping for fresh air through the narrow crack beneath the door.” (9)

His death too was initially blown off as by natural causes.

A similar tear gas death also came out in 2014. In that case, Rommell Johnson, another Florida prisoner who was also an asthmatic, was sprayed with 600 grams of tear gas inside his cell. He too collapsed and died foaming at the mouth. (10)

A weapon of torture

Tear gas in the prison setting can be described as nothing but a weapon of torture. How else does one characterize a weapon that’s designed to create the sensation that one’s flesh and mucous membranes are on fire, and causes one to suffocate? Imagine the pain of one’s eyes, nasal passages, lungs and flesh being aflame, without relief.

And the constant “upgrades” that U.S. manufacturers make to tear gas, is in part to enhance the severity of this pain and make the agents harder to flush from one’s flesh.

The abuse of such weapons (in the pain inflicted) is worse than the lashings and beatings inflicted on slaves in the old South, and the terror just as effective. Only tear gas may be regularly abused without leaving the telltale scars of other forms of physical torture.

A sadistic weapon, a sadistic culture

Not only are these barbaric abuses and murders a daily occurrence in U.S. prisons, but to prison officials they’re part of a game fueled by a deranged and sadistic culture and sense of official entitlement to degrade, torture and murder powerless people.

A glimpse was given into this closed culture in December 2017 when postings, on a 6000-member private Facebook page for Florida guards, was leaked to the Miami Herald. In those postings, guards mocked Jordan-Aparo’s tortured death, and cursed and threatened Herald reporters for publicizing how he was abused and killed. No one on that Facebook page objected to those postings. (11)

This reflects the uniformity of abusive attitudes and practices, or tacit complicity, of U.S. prison officials towards prisoners and the secretive culture that conceals and enables it.

To get a sense of how completely this culture is embraced by prison officials, consider that when at full capacity, Florida has 24,000 prison employees. So, 6000 members on a closed Facebook page where guards openly mock prisoners they have murdered, and threaten journalists who publicize such abuses, is fully a quarter of the systems entire staff. Actually it’s a much larger percentage when you consider that Florida’s prisons are notoriously understaffed.

But U.S. officials denounce regimes like Assad’s in Syria as corrupt, murderous and secretive, and they never lose the opportunity to self-righteously critique the human rights records and treatment of prisoners in countries they dislike.

Whence comes our intervener?

So, if chemical weapons abuses in Syria that leave people suffocating, foaming at the mouth and dead are evil and justify international military responses, who will intervene to stop U.S. officials from doing the same to us? And who will sanction the four major U.S. companies that constantly upgrade and sell the deadly military grade chemical weapons used against us to prisons across Amerika: namely Combined Tactical Systems, Sabre, Safariland and Sage?

Now, what if someone dared to militarily strike Amerika, as the U.S., Britain and France just did to deter uses of chemical weapons in Syria…Well, that’s unthinkable, isn’t it?

Just an example of the utter hypocrisy of U.S. rulers who go around the world masquerading as opponents of injustice and pretending to have the moral (or might I say imperialist and racist) authority to police everyone else, when in reality they are the greatest purveyors of injustice in the world.

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


1 Sarah Lazare, “The Scandal of Chemical Weapons in U.S. Prisons—Banned Worldwide in War, Tear Gas Is Routinely Used In U.S. Prisons And Jails,” Alternet, January 11, 2017

2 Daniel Mouttar, “Prisons Are Using Military-Grade Tear Gas to Punish People—A Burgeoning Arms Industry Brings the War Home,” The Nation, April 28, 2016

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

4 Julie K. Brown, “Culture of Brutality Reigned At State Prison in Florida Panhandle,” Miami Herald, March 21, 2014.

5 Julie K. Brown, “For Allegedly Brutal Guard, Day of Reckoning Arrives,” Miami Herald, September 20, 2014

6 Op cite. note 4

7 Karl Kersplebedeb, “Asthmatic Prisoner Doused With Pepper Spray, Refused Medical Care, Dies: Just Another Day in the Texas Prison System,”

8 Julie K. Brown, “After Florida Inmate’s Lethal Gassing, Claims of Cover-Up,” Miami Herald, August 30, 2014

9 Caitlin Ostroff, “When a Sickly Inmate Was Gassed to Death, Florida Found No Fault. A Judge May Disagree,” Miami Herald, November 29, 2017

10 Op cite, note 4

11 Julie K. Brown and Caitlin Ostroff, “Prison Guards Take to Facebook To Mock Florida Inmate Who Died While Being Gassed,” Miami Herald, December 5, 2017

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