Twenty-two prisoners Florida inmates have asked a federal court to stop what they contend is the growing “sadistic” use of pepper spray and tear gas by state correctional officers, the Orlando Sentinel says. A class-action lawsuit was filed in Fort Myers by inmates — many suffering from mental illness — who say they have been gassed, often when already locked in one-man cells and unable to harm guards or fellow prisoners. Comparing the treatment to torture, the prisoners say the gassing violates their Eighth Amendment protection against “cruel and unusual” punishment.
“The prisoner is trapped in the cell, burning and gasping for air,” said Lisa White Shirley of Florida Institutional Legal Services of Gainesville. “What hundreds of prisoners told us is that, if they were given an order to be quiet, they usually obeyed it. But the officers came back and sprayed them. There was no need for the use of force.”
The lawsuit says that chemicals were used more than 1,800 times last year, making them the most common use of force in the state prison system. The prisoners contend the chemicals often leave them with second-degree burns, permanent eye damage, life-threatening asthma attacks and further deteriorate their mental state.
Florida Corrections Secretary James Crosby defended the use of chemical agents, saying the Department of Corrections has detailed rules for their use. He said using chemicals is an accepted practice for controlling prisoners upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Correctional officers face life-threatening situations daily, said Crosby. “Despite this danger, they are required to show restraint when faced with these situations, using chemical agents instead of force or weapons that could cause permanent harm to aggressive inmates.”
The lawsuit asserts that the use of chemical agents rose 87 percent at Florida State Prison between 2000 and 2002, when it was used 447 times.