Torture in U.S. Prisons


The United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world, and despite the protections of our Constitution, many endure cruel and unusual punishment. In addition to incarceration, prisoners are repeatedly abused by their guards, fellow prisoners, and an ineffective and apathetic system. They suffer beatings, rape, prolonged solitary confinement, meager food rations, and frequently-denied medical care. These violations are far more common than prison administrators would have the public believe.

CCR created this page to house the stories of men, women and children who have been wronged by the US prison industrial complex. These stories, lawsuits and statistics are drawn from every part of the country, clearly illustrating that this problem is pervasive and systemic.

The following information is current as of 11/30/09

Riker v. Gibbons; Nevada, 2007

In Nevada, Dr. William Noel investigated medical conditions at Ely State Prison in 2007 and found “the most shocking and callous disregard to human life and human suffering” there that he had ever encountered in 35 years of practice. The severe neglect of prisoners’ medical needs resulted in the death of Patrick Cavanaugh, a diabetic prisoner who died after being denied medication for three painful years, and the devastating condition of Michael Mulder, who suffered a stroke in prison and received no treatment or physical therapy. He is now paralyzed on his right side.

External links and more information:

Mast v. Donahue; Indiana, 2007

In Indiana, seriously mentally ill inmates like Brian Mast, Michael Woods and Eugene Wells were routinely held in solitary confinement 24 hours a day at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. Placed in solitary confinement as punishment for “disobedient” behavior caused by their symptoms, many mentally ill patients rapidly deteriorate and even try to end their own lives by hanging themselves, slitting their wrists, lighting themselves on fire, or choking themselves. If prisoners report symptoms of mental illness they are punished by being strapped to their beds in leather restraints, usually for 4 hours at a time.

External links and more information:

ACLU of New Mexico v. The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department et. Al.; New Mexico, 2007.

In New Mexico, youth held in state run facilities “are routinely and unlawfully denied adequate mental health, medical and educational services,” which deeply harms them and thwarts their rehabilitation process. The youth are often physically and emotionally abused by both staff and other youth, and put in solitary confinement for inappropriately long periods. There is no functional grievance system in place, so these children have nowhere to turn.

External links and more information:

Amador v. Department of Correctional Services; New York, 2003

In New York, seventeen female inmates sought justice after surviving sexual abuse at the hands of prison guards. Although the women had attempted to take action within the prison system, their complaints and requests for help and treatment were repeatedly ignored. Toni Co, an inmate presently confined at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a certain guard over many days. She reported his actions, but “no disciplinary action was taken against him…Since Ms. Co. reported this misconduct, Officer Da. has been assigned to her housing area.”

External links and more information:

Bradley v. Haley; Alabama, 2000

In Alabama, long-time mentally ill inmate Thomas Bradley was exposed to cruel and unusual punishment and treated discriminatorily due to his mental and physical condition. The prison officials have “failed and refused to provide even minimal standards of care for persons in such condition, denying adequate medical treatment and adequate facilities.” The extreme neglect and maltreatment that Bradley suffered in prison caused his mental state to deteriorate to the point that he could no longer recognize others, communicate, walk unassisted or feed or care for himself. Bradley’s family hired a psychiatrist to counsel him, but the prison officials did not allow Bradley to utilize that service.

External links and more information:

Thomas v. McNeil; Florida, 2009

In Florida, mentally ill inmates were repeatedly “sprayed by officers with chemical agents” as a result of disruptive behavior that was beyond their control as a result of their conditions. Nearly 80% of the inmates at Florida State Prison are housed in completely enclosed individual nine-by-seven foot prison cells with a solid steel door containing a small window and a flap (known as a “food flap”) through which food, medication, and other items may be passed. Prison rules prohibit creating a disturbance, and when mentally ill inmates are unable to follow the rules, the guards punish them through use of force.

External links and more information:

Valdes v. Crosby; Florida, 1999

In Florida, Frank Valdes died after a group of guards stomped on, punched, and tasered him as he lay on the ground in fetal position. The killing came after officials ignored a drumbeat of complaints from inmates about ongoing violent beatings. A letter sent by a fellow inmate of Valdes’ two days before the murder stated that “The sounds of prisoners screaming in pain and of bodies being beaten keep the inmates on the entire wing up all night. I can hear the officers forcibly take inmates from their cells. The wretched sound of fists and boots striking flesh are unmistakable, as is the sound of some kind of weapon (a stick or a broom handle?) being used. They scream. They whimper. Then there is silence. Somebody needs to get the Feds in here,'' he continued, ''to stop this before someone gets killed.''

Schmude v. Sheahan; Illinois, 2005

In Illinois, Louis Schmude was beaten to death by three sheriff’s deputies after he allegedly insulted one of them. The deputies are said to have struck 70-100 times while Schmude pleaded for mercy. He requested medical help, but died two days after the beatings.

People of the State of Michigan v. Reginald Johnson; Michigan, 2004.

In Michigan, Tara Hamed was brutally sexually assaulted by a corrections officer. The officer “directed her into an unoccupied office and began to kiss her and place his hands on her body. Hamed told defendant “no,” and tried to get him off her. Defendant pushed Hamed up against a desk, digitally penetrated her, and attempted to have intercourse with her. He did not succeed because Hamed was struggling too much. But defendant did force Hamed to her knees and ejaculated on her.” Hamed was released from jail 4 days after the assault, and returned the following morning to file a complaint.

External links and more information:

K.L.W. v. James; Mississippi, 2004

In Mississippi, a PEER Report revealed that youth sent to the Columbia Training School for rehabilitation and treatment were subject to cruel abuse such as “hog-tying, pole-shackling, and prolonged isolation of suicidal youth in dark rooms without light, ventilation, or toilet facilities.” Staff members were found to regularly abuse youth, whose medical and emotional needs were consistently neglected. Plaintiff K.L.W., for instance, was choked by a staff member and told that if he complained about the abuse his release date would be pushed back.

D.W., et al. v. Harrison County, Miss.; Mississippi, 2009

In Mississippi, children held at the Juvenile Detention Center were forced to live under abusive conditions that were dangerously unsafe and unsanitary. The youth were subject to “shackling, staff-on-youth assaults, 23-hour a day lock-down in filthy jail cells, unsanitary conditions resulting in widespread contraction of scabies and staph infections, dangerous overcrowding that forces many youth to sleep on the concrete floor, and inadequate medical care.” One child, D.W., attempted suicide after he “endured a brutal physical assault from adult staff members, and spent 23 hours a day locked in a filthy vermin-infested jail cell” without a bed. He received no counseling or treatment. Sadly, D.W.’s story echoes those of the 30 other youth interviewed by attorneys.

External links and more information:

Gaddis v. Campbell; Alabama, 2003

In Alabama, the medical needs of inmates who suffer from diabetes mellitus were deliberately ignored. Because the prison officials were indifferent to the prisoners’ well-being, the prisoners now suffer from “retinopathy, blurred vision, amputations of the toes, possible kidney damage, recurrent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), dizziness, and pain” and are at risk for blindness, amputation of limbs, kidney failure, nervous system failure, pneumonia, strokes, heart attacks and death. 37 year old Michael Gaddis, for instance, had to have toes amputated because of the grossly inadequate care he received for his circulation. He has been denied orthopedic shoes and is now partially confined to a wheel chair. This could have been prevented with proper care.

External links and more information:

Plata v. Davis/Schwarzenegger; California, 2005

In California, prison officials were deliberately indifferent to the dire medical needs of inmates, resulting in “widespread harm, including severe and unnecessary pain, injury and death.” Raymond Johns, a 76 year old prisoner, suffers from cataracts. Because he received no treatment, he is now blind in his left eye and partially blind in his right. This could have been avoided, but prison doctors have refused to remove the cataracts before Mr. Johns loses vision in both eyes. All ten plaintiffs in this case have similarly staggering stories of medical neglect. “On average, an inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days due to grossly deficient medical care.”

External links and more information:

Vinning-el v. Long: Illinois, 2007

In Illinois, prisoners are forced to live in unsanitary, inhumane conditions. Mondrea Vinning-El’s story is representative. “After a fight with a cellmate, Vinning-El was stripped of his clothing and placed in a cell in the disciplinary-segregation unit. He was not permitted to take any personal property with him. The floor of the cell was covered with water, the sink and toilet did not work, and the walls were smeared with blood and feces. Vinning-El was forced to remain in the cell without a mattress, sheets, toilet paper, towels, shoes, soap, toothpaste, or any personal property, for six days.” No human beings should be treated this way.

External links and more information:

Gillis v. E Litscher a; Wisconsin, 2006

In Wisconsin, Nathan Gillis was subjected to a “Behavioral Modification Program” that forced him to sleep naked on a concrete floor in an isolated cell. He was “deprived of nearly all human contact and sensory stimuli.” The cell was kept so cold that he had to walk in circles for 14 hours of the day in order to stay warm without clothes or bedding. Gillis’s mental health deteriorated under these cruel conditions; he began to hurt himself and spread feces on the wall. He became suicidal. When officials noticed his behavior he was “placed on clinical observation, but the conditions of his confinement did not change.” Believe it or not, the infraction that Gillis was being punished for with this aggressive, agonizing program was sleeping with his head in the wrong direction.

External links and more information:

Vandehey v. Vallario; Colorado, 2006

In Colorado, prisoners are subjected to the unrestrained and excessive use of pepperball guns, restraint chairs, tasers, pepper spray, and electroshock belts. This has caused extreme harm, both physical and mental, to the prisoners. William Langley, for instance, “has been confined in the Garfield County Jail since the beginning of October, 2005. Since childhood, he has suffered and continues to suffer from serious mental health problems that have not been adequately addressed during his stay at the Garfield County Jail. Deputies have strapped him into the restraint chair at least five times, have forced him to wear an electroshock belt to court, and he has endured numerous additional threats of force from deputies wielding pepper spray, tasers, and the pepperball gun.”

External links and more information:

Prisoner Abuse Resources (a Resource Bank)

American Friends Service Committee “Stopmax” campaign

Human Rights Watch Reports

Other Reports

  • Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement” by Stuart Grassion, M.D., 1993
  • Felony and Violent Recidivism Among Supermax Prison Inmates in Washington State: A Pilot Study” by David Lovell and Clark Johnson from the Department of Psychosocial & Community Health University of Washington, 2004
  • History of Control Units” by Bonnie Kerness, 1996
  • Conditions of Confinement in Immigrant Detention Facilities” – ACLU report, 2007
  • Executive Summary of The Forgotten Population: A Look at Death Row in the United States Through the Experiences of Women” ACLU, 2004\
  • One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008”  The Pew Center on States, 2008
  • National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report” 2009
  • Commission of Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons Report” 2006

Powerful Statistics

  • “77% of prisoners are non-violent offenders”
  • 80% of women in prison are mothers”
  • On average, if a female kills a male partner, she gets 15-20 yrs. If a male kills a female partner, he gets to 2-6 years”  
  • One in every thirty-one adults is now in the US corrections system. Twenty-five years ago, the rate was one in seventy-seven.”
  • (
  • The Pew Center on the States found that corrections spending is outpacing government spending on education, transportation and public assistance.
  • A 2007 survey of State and Federal prisoners suggests that an estimated 60,500 individuals were sexually abused during the 12 months leading up to the survey.”
    (  from The Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report, p. 40 )
  • More prisoners reported abuse by staff than abuse by other prisoners”
    (  from The Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report, p. 4 )
  • 68 percent of jail inmates with medical problems reported never being examined”
    (  from The Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report, p. 15)
  • According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics(BJS), the rate of sexual abuse in juvenile facilities was more than five times greater than the parallel rate in adult facilities.
    (  from The Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report, p. 17)
  • Civil rights attorney Deborah LaBelle told the Commission that 80 percent of the 420 boys sentenced to life without parole in Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri reported that, within the first year of their sentence, they had been sexually assaulted by at least one adult male prisoner.”
    (  from The Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report, p. 19)
  • In the 15 years from 1994 to 2009, the number of immigrants held in detention pending a judicial decision about their legal right to remain in the United States increased nearly 400 percent.”
    (  from The Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report, p. 21)

(Race related statistics)

African Americans make up:

  • 13% of the US population
  • 13% of drug users
  • 35% of drug arrests
  • 55% of drug convictions
  • 74% of those sentenced to prison for drugs
  • (
  • African American women (with an incarceration rate of 205 per 100,000) are more than three times as likely as Latinas (60 per 100,000) and six times more likely than white women (34 per 100,000) to face imprisonment.”
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2000 (
  • In 2000, substantially more African Americans were under some form of correctional supervision (jail, prison, probation, and parole) than were enrolled in college. Among whites… there were more than twice as many whites in college as there were under correctional supervision”
    (Walker, Spohn, and DeLone 2004, p. 297). (
  • According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2003), an African-American boy born in 2001 faced a 32 percent chance of being imprisoned at some point in his life, compared to a 17 percent likelihood for a Hispanic boy and a 6 percent likelihood for a white boy.” (

Prison comics

  • Prisoners of the War on Drugs”
  • Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children”

Last modified 

June 18, 2010