Florida corrections officers caught arbitrarily spraying inmates with pepper spray and tear gas

KirklandMugshot/Florida DOCCorrections captain James Kirkland

State prison inmates at a correctional facility in worthwestern Florida were routinely sprayed with chemical agents as a disciplinary measure, even if the inmates had done nothing wrong, the Miami Herald reported on Sunday.

Capt. James Kirkland, a corrections officer at the Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley, abused prisoners for over a decade before he was arrested in September 2014 on charges of felony battery.

According to Chipley inmates and corrections officers, Kirkland “contaminated inmates’ food, sprayed them with chemicals for no reason and threatened to break their fingers and to kill them,” according to the Herald.

Kirkland urged his fellow officers to “gas” unruly inmates with pepper spray and tear gas, a system that became known as “the program.” To make the incidents more painful, guards would heat up canisters so that the chemicals would stick to inmates’ skin and burn them, prisoners told the Department of Corrections.

Spraying inmates with chemicals is legal under department policy, but there are rules. The inmate must be causing a significant disturbance — such as kicking or screaming — and if they are sprayed, prisoners must be offered a shower, medical examination, and new set of clothes because the chemicals are so toxic.

Protocol was rarely followed, however. The Herald reports that guards frequently faked prisoner disturbances in order to get permission to spray them, and prisoners’ cells and clothing were rarely, if ever, decontaminated.

On June 3, 2010, Rommell Johnson — an asthmatic and paranoid schizophrenic — was gassed in the face, chest, and torso for shouting profanitites in the dining hall. He died that night of an asthma attack, his body “‘saturated’ with brownish orange chemical residue,” according to the Herald.

A federal indictment was filed in September against five corrections officers at Chipley for conspiring to violate inmates’ constitutional rights after they were caught on security cameras beating and stomping on a handcuffed and shackled prisoner, the Herald reported.

Kirkland, too, was arrested. But four months after being released on bail — awaiting his very likely conviction and suffering from extreme depression — he shot himself in the head in his Florida home.

We have reached out to the Northwest Florida Reception Center for comment and will update when we hear back.

Check out the full report at the Herald >

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