Steve J. Martin is a “prison expert.” His expertise has been utilized by the U.S. Justice Department, U.S. Homeland Security Department, and the federal courts in lawsuits challenging prison conditions, especially those involving the use of excessive force.


In a July 6, 2020 Op-ed piece, for the Washington Post, Martin, a former corrections officer in the Texas prison system, made these poignant observations:


“Correctional officers routinely employ tasers, stun shields, pepper-ball and gas guns, restraint chairs, expandable batons, attack dogs and even their own fists and feet to subdue inmates. This results in bruises, lacerations, fractured limbs, chemical burns, perforated ear drums, severe concussions and injuries to internal organs. All too often these injuries result in needless death.


“Officers are authorized to use necessary and proportionate force to control dangerous inmates. But it happens with frightening frequency, even in response to less threatening behaviors – refusing to immediately hang up a phone, possessing a nuisance contraband, complaining about not receiving visits or privileges or medications. Prison employees also use force to maliciously punishment prisoners who anger them.”


Former Prison Guard Sentenced to 10 years for Cover-Up


That’s what happened in 2014 with former Louisiana State Penitentiary prison guard, Daniel Davis. The then security major tripped a handcuffed and shackled inmate as he was being escorted down a prison walkway, resulting in severe injuries to the inmate, including a dislocated shoulder and a collapsed lung. Not satisfied with this level of punishment, Davis and two other ranking prison guards—all of whom had prior complaints for the use of excessive force—then punched, kicked and stomped the restrained inmate.


Davis was recently sentenced to 10 years in federal prison by a U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for his role in the brutal assault and orchestrating the criminal conspiracy to cover up the incident. The other two guards—John Sanders and James Savoy, Jr.—were sentenced to 18 months and 24 months respectively.


This Louisiana prison case is an anomaly only because the guards were arrested, tried, and convicted for their roles in the criminal assault.


Dramatic Increase in Use of Force


Earlier this year, Jolie McCullough, writing in the February 7, 2020 edition of the Texas Tribune, pointed out that there has been a dramatic increase in the use of force in the Texas prison system—rising from 6,624 cases in 2009 to more than 11,000 instances in 2019.


One of those use of force incidents occurred in September 2018 in the Huntsville Estelle Unit that resulted in the death of an inmate just three months shy of his release date. In that incident, the guard, D’Andre Clasper, slammed the handcuffed inmate to the floor in a prison shower, leading to the inmate’s death from cardiac arrest.


Although the court has not resolved his case to date, Clasper’s case is only the third case in which criminal charges have been leveled against Texas prison guards over the past decade for the use of excessive force.


Texas prison officials blame the increased use of force on the fact that during the same time frame, there were more than 3,000 violent offenders locked up in the prison system and that there was a corresponding significant shortage of staff to deal with them.


Keeper/Kept Dynamic


The need for facility control may certainly necessitate the use of force in some instances, but too often unskilled and poorly trained officers resort to excessive force because they see it as the most expedient method of control. That’s exactly what Clasper did. He abused his authority to use force to punish the inmate for a perceived slight. This sort of excessive force leads to what Steve Martin called a “culture of violence” in the keeper/kept dynamic in the prison setting. He explained:


“My experience convinces me that – like police – most corrections officers do not use unnecessary or excessive force. Nonetheless, officials in some places turn a blind eye to abuse by rogue officers. In badly run facilities, officers control inmates through punitive violence. In the worst cases, a culture of violence – often race-related – becomes entrenched.


Deaths Merit Investigation, Transparency


“No one knows how many inmates die each year because of staff use of force, but we know that number of deaths merits far more attention than has been given. Correctional systems typically do not gather – much less publish — data on such deaths, and they rarely receive media attention. In 2013, Congress mandated a national data gathering, but the process is bogged down and no one expects reliable figures anytime soon.


“As with police, we need policies that require correctional officers to attempt de-escalation before using force, to expand training for officers, to limit application of supposedly ‘non-lethal’ chemicals and stun guns, especially on restrained prisoners or those in their cells; and to require officers to intervene to stop excessive force by others.


“We need accountability for the misuse of force. Too few officers face sanctions, even for killing a detainee. Internal review too often fails to provide meaningful scrutiny. The testimony of inmate witnesses is discounted, and, as with the police, the ‘code of silence’ among prison staffs helps protect abusive officers. Autopsies and death certificates often ignore the use of force that might have precipitated the death.”


And while the social demand for police reform has gained and maintained traction during the wake of the George Floyd killing by Minneapolis police this past February, calls for prison reform, especially during rising deaths from COVID, have virtually gone silent. 


COVID Runs Amok in Prison System


The Texas Tribune reported on July 7, 2020 that at least 84 inmates have died from the virus while another 9,500 have tested positive for it, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Similarly, the COVID virus is being allowed to run amok in the nation’s prison system, especially in California, where thousands have tested positive for the virus, and hundreds have died from it. 


There is no market for prison reform in the best of times, and in the worst of times as exists today, the new penal philosophy is “every man for himself.” Inmates are angry and afraid, as are the prison guards, and this creates a situation fraught with the need for force, regardless of how excessive, to maintain order and control.


One day in the post-COVID future, there will be horrific fact-gathering investigations and ensuing official recriminations about the abuses currently being experienced by inmates in the nation’s prison system. Our society will look back on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s idiotic and immoral calls to let older people succumb to the virus to avoid economic hardship, and puzzle about how we, as a society, lost our way during the pandemic crisis. And it will be through this moral lens that our society will truly understand how and why the imprisoned were left to fend for themselves.