Skip to main content

When prison guards abuse their power

Department Of Correction Inmate | Unsplash Images

Series six of The Jail: 60 Days In sees the behind-bars action take place at Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama. It’s one of the most controversial and fraught seasons of the undercover prison-based reality show. One of the ‘stars’ of the series is Guard Williams, who has her very own and very twisted version of punishment…

Of course, abuse of prison inmates by guards isn’t exactly a new thing. It’s been happening almost as long as jails have existed. The psychology behind this kind of mistreatment is complicated and explored in Philip Zimbardo’s famous Milgram Experiment-inspired Stanford Prison Experiment. In a nutshell - power corrupts.

Join us as we open the cell door and explore some of the most shocking examples of how vicious, corrupt or just plain cruel wardens abused their position in the most horrific of ways…

‘Systematic abuse’ at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex

Coleman is a large prison near the city of Ocala in Florida, housing around 6,000 convicts. Approximately 500 of the inmates are women, kept in their own separate wing. The entire prison, however, is staffed by male officers.

Recently, 15 women - some out, some still inside - sued the facility for sexual harassment, misconduct and assault. It’s alleged that a number of prison guards exploited their positions of authority and abused the women sexually. Offers of protection were also made in return for sexual favours.

Heard and corroborated in court were multiple stories of the male guards walking in on the women showering or dressing/undressing. They were made to sunbathe topless and one accusation even describes a guard forcing two of the female inmates to have a threesome with him.

Six of the eight officers accused admitted to having had sexual contact with inmates. None of them were prosecuted, though. Instead, all have either resigned or retired since the court case. A settlement was agreed in the end, with the 15 women receiving more than $1.25m in damages between them.

Over the years, multiple lawsuits have detailed abuse and harassment. Hundreds of women have complained and tens of millions of dollars have been handed out in damages.

Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse

20 miles west of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad lies the city of Abu Ghraib. Its prison was opened and used as a regular jail in the 1950s, up until the ‘80s when the Iraqi president/dictator Saddam Hussein commandeered it and began using it as a prison for political prisoners. After Iraq fell to the Americans in the Gulf War, the US took over the place.

In 2004, photographs emerged of quite serious torture and prisoner abuse being carried out in Abu Ghraib by the CIA and US Army. Physical abuse, rape, psychological abuse, sodomy and even murder were reported. The United States was widely condemned. Unsurprisingly, George W. Bush claimed the abuses were isolated and not indicative of the country’s foreign policy. Later evidence emerged proving that statement to be false.

The torture was defended in some circles with a subtle but transparent rebranding exercise. The human rights abuses were described as ‘enhanced interrogation’, but the furore continued. Understandably so. The photos were shocking and those were just the ones that were leaked, many more explicit and distressing pictures were withheld.

Prisoners were raped with objects, made to renounce their faith and humiliated in many really quite abhorrent ways. They were threatened with dogs, stripped naked, forced to wear urine-covered women’s underwear on their faces... the list goes on.

In the end, multiple soldiers and senior officials were reprimanded and imprisoned for the abuses and the US’ military suffered huge reputational damage.

Extreme violence at Rikers Island

Until very recently, Rikers Island housed adult and young offenders. Yep, that Rikers Island. The notoriously violent prison in New York City that the US Justice Department described as having a ‘deep-seated culture of violence’.

Inmates shouldn’t face beatings from guards whatever their age, but to discover that just a decade ago, more than 500 inmates under the age of 18 reported injuries due to physical violence from guards is truly shocking. Especially when you consider that that figure is just the number of injuries that were formally reported. The real number will be much higher.

The abuses go beyond beatings dished out to junior cons. The prison is currently working hard, they claim, to undo years of violent behaviour from guards. One of which was reprimanded by his employers just once, despite having some 76 different ‘uses of force’ on his file.

Let’s hope prison authorities are serious about cleaning up. It doesn’t matter what crimes the prisoners committed, no one in jail deserves to be beaten with ‘batons, radios and broomsticks’.

Escape at Dannemora

Not all abuses of power in jails see guards beating or humiliating prisoners. It’s perfectly possible to break the law as an employee of a prison without putting anyone in the hospital wing.

The 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape saw two prison inmates, David Sweat and Richard Matt, break out by digging a tunnel out of the place. They were out for a fortnight before an enormous manhunt tracked them down. Both men were shot with Matt dying and Sweat being taken back into custody. The story was made into an excellent Showtime miniseries starring Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano called Escape at Dannemora.

On day seven of the search for the escapees, July 12th 2015, a prison employee Joyce Mitchell was arrested for her part in the plot. Mitchell worked as a supervisor in one of the workshops and entered into a relationship with Matt, who convinced her to smuggle contraband to him to help him dig his way out of his cell.

Mitchell had even planned to pick the two men up when they made their way out of the sewers connecting the facility to the local neighbourhood but decided against it.

Mitchell served five years for her part in the plot and was released in 2020.