Legalized torture of prisoners

5/22/2015, 2:31 p.m. | Updated on 5/22/2015, 2:31 p.m.
Freddie Gray is neither the first nor will he be the last person to die in police custody. According to ...
Julianne Malveaux

Julianne Malveaux

Freddie Gray is neither the first nor will he be the last person to die in police custody.

According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, 4,813 people died in police custody between 2003 and 2009 (the most recent data, reported in 2011). However, not every state reports their data, so the number is probably higher. A new report is scheduled to be released this year or next.

Many of those who die in police custody are bipolar or have other mental health challenges. Too many police officers have not been trained to deal with people with mental health problems. The mentally ill need help, not a fatal bullet.

Tanisha Anderson had a heart condition and bipolar disorder. When she was detained in Cleveland, she was pushed and forced into a prone position, which led to her death.

Anthony Hall — unarmed, naked and bipolar — was an Air Force veteran. He was running through an Atlanta street. Instead of being calmed down and clothed, he was killed.

Robert Saylor had Down syndrome. He was killed at the Regal Cinema Westview Stadium in Frederick, Md., over a $13 movie ticket. He was handcuffed, made to lay face down on the ground and was asphyxiated.

Police officers need more training to deal with the mentally ill and those with Down syndrome. Unless these “violators” are flashing a weapon, they should be talked down, not shot down. Instead, officers think they have a license to shoot and kill harmless and helpless people. These deaths should be classified as police misconduct, but these “officers of the law” rarely pay a price for their behavior.

There are exceptions. In Chatham County, Ga., Matthew Ajebade, 21, had bipolar disorder. He was placed in a restraining chair and held in isolation. After being put in the restraining chair, he was Tasered, an action that ultimately led to his death. All nine of the sheriff’s deputies who detained him were fired.

In Oakland, Calif., former BART Officer Johannes Mehserle spent a few months in jail before he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Oscar Grant. He was sentenced to two years in jail, but served only 11 months because he received time off for good behavior.

There is other abuse that too frequently goes unpunished — rape. In fact, inmates are so frequently raped when they are imprisoned that Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. This legislation mandated that the U.S. Department of Justice collect data on sexual victimization. More than 80,000 reports of sexual activity were logged in the 2011-2012 year.

Some of these sexual encounters were described as “consensual,” but an imprisoned person hardly has the means to withhold sex from a jailer. Some trade sex for more food, a blanket or a better cell. Whether consensual or not, it is illegal for guards to engage in sexual activity with prisoners. These guards are often neither disciplined nor fired. What is a prisoner to do? Report the violation and subject themselves to additional abuse?