Categories: National Commentary

Legalized Torture of Prisoners

By Julianne Malveaux

NNPA Columnist

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 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 officers of the law 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 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’s 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’s syndrome. Unless these “violators” are flashing a weapon, they should be talked down, not shot down. Instead, those 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, Georgia, 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; that action ultimately led to his death. All nine of the sheriff’s deputies who detained him were fired. 

In Oakland, Calif., 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 Department of Justice collect data on sexual victimization. They measured more than 80,000 reports of sexual activity 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?

In addition to sexual abuse, prisoners are subject to the loss of their dignity and their physical safety in many instances. Prisoners in San Francisco were forced to fight each other (as if they were Mandingos during slavery), for the entertainment of deputy sheriffs. According to the San Francisco Examiner, these fights were described by some as “little more than horseplay.” But who wants to be thrashed in the name of horseplay?” Further, this so-called horseplay reduces inmates to gladiators, to people who are perceived as less than human.

Many “law enforcement officers” in San Francisco, Ferguson, Mo. and other places reveal their attitudes through text messages they send to one another. They refer to African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans using crude language to show contempt for these populations. They treat people of color as far less than human, and their text messages reflect that.

These killings, rapes, arranged fights and other forms of oppressive harassment are just the tip of the iceberg. Few officers will tell the truth about legalized human rights violations because they are protecting their colleagues. In covering up these violations, they contribute in the erosion of trust in some communities.

To be sure, only a small percentage of police officers violate the human rights of prisoners. A far greater number are silent in the face of evil. Inhumane attacks on the lives and liberties of prisoners will stop when silent officers open their mouths and put and put and end to the legalized killing and torture of prisoners.


Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based economist in Washington, DC. She can be contacted at


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