As a public defender, I have seen firsthand the unspeakable abuses that those incarcerated in the United States are forced to endure. This group includes those convicted of crimes and pretrial detainees who are presumed innocent.
Fortunately, you needn’t be on the front lines to bear witness. As the tide turns on prisoners’ rights, respected publications are increasingly devoting time and attention to the horrors of incarceration. Some newspapers have even dedicated entire sections to these issues.
Despite this increased visibility, there is a persistent misconception that incarcerated persons are getting a free ride—or at least more than they deserve. Read the comments section of any prisoners rights’ article, and you will likely find someone claiming that prisoners live better than the middle class.
There is also the misconception that prisoners have no rights, which leads people to conclude that anything prisoners do get is charity. Others have a troubling tendency to turn their backs on pain that they perceive as self-inflicted. The logic goes something like this: These people committed a crime, so they deserve whatever happens to them in prison.
Before you conclude that prisoners simply get what they deserve, read below for some of the shocking ways that prisons torture inmates in modern times. Many of these practices will leave even the most stonehearted begging for reform.
10. Scalding Showers
In 2012, prison authorities boiled Darren Rainey to death when they forced him to take a two-hour shower in scalding water that was 82 degrees Celsius (180 °F). The water, hot enough to cook a cup of overpriced ramen from the prison commissary, burned over 90 percent of Rainey’s body. As staff members pulled Rainey’s limp body from the shower, his skin sloughed off. They had, in essence, cooked him alive.
Rainey, who was schizophrenic, had defecated in his cell. When Harriet Krzykowski, a former counselor at the Dade Correctional Institution, asked a guard how they were going to deal with Rainey, the guard calmly assured her, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll put him in the shower.” Krzykowski assumed this was a good thing.
The next day, Krzykowski learned that the guards had locked Rainey in a claustrophobic stall and showered him, by force, with a hose. Only the guards, not Rainey, were able to control the water temperature. Because the shower was so small, there was nothing Rainey could do to escape the scalding water.
Nearby inmates reported that Rainey had screamed for help during the two-hour torture session. Rainey, who was serving a sentence for cocaine possession, a nonviolent offense, was cooked like a lobster.
According to Rainey’s fellow inmates, Rainey was not the first person who had been locked in the shower under these conditions. However, he was the first to die.
9. Forcing Inmates To Fight
“Mandingo” fighting, a practice in which slaves were forced to fight to the death, has been widely discredited. Yet in modern correctional facilities across the United States, guards force majority–minority inmates to fight one another for entertainment. In San Francisco’s main jail, reserved for pretrial detainees and those serving short sentences, these forced fights have been dubbed “gladiator matches.”
According to San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, guards place bets on who they think will win. If inmates refuse to fight, officers threaten them with rape and other acts of violence. Adachi stated of the practice, “I can only describe this as an outrageously sadistic scenario that sounds like it’s out of Game of Thrones.”
Former inmate Rico Palikiko Garcia described how these fights, which he participated in under the threat of being beaten and tased, left him with broken ribs. According to Garcia, guards warned the inmates that they would be beaten if they were honest about the source of their injuries.
One guard allegedly instructed an inmate to tell jail medical staff that he had fallen from his bunk. Officers forced another victim, Stanley Harris, to do push-ups in preparation for the fights. Harris claims that prison staff threatened him with anal rape if he did not comply.