JOHN KIRIAKOU: Derek Chauvin & the State of US Prisons

The most incarcerated country on Earth needs to change its entire criminal justice system. It’s irreparably broken at every level.

Mural at the abandoned Atlanta Prison Farm in Georgia, August 2013. (RJ, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

I’ve written a lot about the corrupt, inefficient and failing Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP.)  Most recently, the mainstream media have lauded the BOP’s new director, Colette Peters, who was brought in to “clean the place up.” 

Peters is a former successful director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. The idea was that, rather than promote somebody from within the BOP to lead it, which has been done time and time again and which has failed time and time again, maybe a fresh face from outside could bring a new perspective and could turn the BOP around.  

That hasn’t happened.  If anything, Peters has been ignored by her subordinates and, in many cases, circumvented.  While by all accounts, she’s a very nice person who means well and who really does want to improve federal prisons, she is powerless to do so. 

In the absence of real accountability and any meaningful oversight from Capitol Hill, she is doomed to fail. If 2023 has been any indication, that failure is going to be clear.

[Related: JOHN KIRIAKOU: US Prison Chief’s Dim Prospects]

The BOP’s most recent appearance in the media has been related to the near-fatal stabbing of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who is serving a sentence of 22-and-a-half years in prison for his role in the murder of George Floyd.  

Chauvin is doing his time in the federal system because it is supposed to be safer than most state prison systems. Chauvin otherwise would have been in a state penitentiary in Minnesota.  

Instead, he is in a medium-security federal prison in Tucson, Arizona.  He was stabbed there by another prisoner on Nov. 24 and guards had to “perform life-saving measures” on him.

Federal Correctional Institution in Tucson, Arizona. (Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

The BOP’s headquarters blamed staffing problems for the stabbing, saying that there simply aren’t enough prison guards to keep the facilities safe.  I’m no apologist for the BOP, but in a country with 4 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prison population, according to World Prison Brief — and an employee suicide rate that’s off the charts (all while earning so little money that qualifies many guards for food stamps), who would want to work for the BOP?

In the meantime, the BOP’s 2023 problems have not been limited to the Chauvin stabbing or to the earlier stabbing of Dr. Larry Nassar, the physician and former team doctor for the U.S. National Women’s Gymnastics Team who molested hundreds of girls and young women under his care.  Other incidents include:

  • A BOP guard in Florida was recently charged with 14 felony counts of wire fraud, disability fraud, and aggravated identity theft in a scheme that allegedly netted her $40,000.  Katrina Denise McCoy faces 20 years in prison.

  • Another BOP guard, Fiona Eyana Palmer, was found guilty of sexually abusing a prisoner and asking the prisoner to lie to federal investigators. She faced up to 20 years in prison, but was sentenced to only 15 months.

  • A BOP guard in Texas, Jasmine Arellano, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison after being found guilty of taking bribes to smuggle cocaine, marijuana and vodka into the prison in which she worked.  She had faced up to 15 years in prison.

Main office of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. (AgnosticPreachersKid, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

These problems are not limited to the BOP. There are similar problems in state prison systems and local and county jails.  Here’s a sample:

  • Larry Eugene Price was taken into custody in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the midst of a severe mental health crisis and charged with threatening a police officer.  He was held on $100 bail.  Unable to pay it, he remained in jail.  For reasons that are still unclear, but possibly as punishment for his verbal abuse of the sheriff’s deputies, Price was denied food. Three months later, after being found eating his own feces, he died.  The local coroner ruled that his death was caused by “starvation.”

  • The Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee found that two female prisoners had been forced to perform “sex shows” for a guard.  The guard, Travis Hank Davis, forced the women to perform sex acts on each other while he watched and masturbated.  The court granted the women a settlement of $110,000. Davis was fired, but no charges were brought against him.

  • The state of Pennsylvania agreed to pay prisoner Warren Easley $30,000 after 15 guards were found to have beaten and tortured him because they were angry that he repeatedly attempted suicide. His attempts resulted in more than 60 stitches and three outside hospital visits.

  • Perry Belden, a prisoner in San Bernardino County, California, kept saying he was sick.  Guards ignored him until they finally found him unconscious on the floor of his cell.  It turned out that Belden was in renal failure.  He had to have both of his legs and his left hand amputated.  A judge found that he had been suffering from potentially lethal dehydration for days before passing out.  The court granted Belden $1.25 million in damages.

  • The family of Cindy Lou Hill was granted $27 million after guards in the Spokane County Jail denied Hill medical care for a ruptured intestine.  She died in agony after three days, found in a pool of her own blood and vomit.

  • Chad Stanbro was awarded $2.06 million after a beating from guards left him paralyzed from the neck down.  What did he do to deserve such treatment?  While getting a tooth pulled in the prison infirmary, Stanbro knocked over a medical device.

  • Vincent Keith Bell, a prisoner in the San Francisco Jail, was awarded $1.1 million after he was denied use of his prosthetic leg and his wheelchair and was forced to hop everywhere he needed to go, including to court. Bell received an additional award after proving that a guard had whispered to him that she “thought he was beautiful and wanted to see his penis.”  After he refused, the guard targeted him for especially rough treatment.

  • The family of Virginia prisoner Robert Lee Boley was granted $2.215 million after he died in the Deerfield Men’s Work Center from a treatable aneurysm.  “Treatable” is the operative word here.  Boley complained repeatedly that he was in excruciating pain, only to be given Mylanta and forced back to work.

It’s clear that the U.S. criminal justice system is irreparably broken at every level.  The only solution — and this has proven effective in Scandinavia — is to change the entire system into one of training, education and mental health. 

Hiring better people by paying them a decent wage might be a good start. Rather than hiring morons who can barely read and write, who washed out of the local police academy, or who couldn’t make it in the military, perhaps guard candidates should have teaching certificates or should be able to offer vocational training. 

That should come after decriminalizing so many of the stupid laws on the books. It’s not an accident that the U.S. is the most incarcerated country on Earth.  The system has to change immediately.  Anything would be better than what exists now. 

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

4 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Derek Chauvin & the State of US Prisons

  1. Robert
    December 2, 2023 at 10:30

    4% of the worlds population and 25% of the people incarcerated ! Wow, that’s a startling statistic. And yet, a common refrain after reading an article about criminal activity perpetrated by a young man with a long criminal history is: He should have been in prison already instead of walking the streets. So if the US already has a VERY high incarceration rate how does this country reduce criminal activity without even more incarnation? I don’t have any idea how to do so. The problem is that our elected officials in almost every large city in the country don’t know either. So it looks like our cities are going to plod along and suffer the consequences. The consequences being productive, law abiding citizens moving, along with their tax revenue, to safer areas.

    I understand why commercial real estate values in these cities are going down. That trend seems irreversible in the near 3 to 5 year term.

    • LarcoMarco
      December 3, 2023 at 04:11

      NO ONE knows how to stop the downward swirl of society. But it will continue as psychopaths pour fuel oo the conflagrations of Ukraine and Palestine.

  2. Adam Gorelick
    December 1, 2023 at 21:14

    Three factors of many that are brought to mind when surveying the appalling and criminal criminal “Justice” and prison system in the United States are the practice of throwing every possible charge at people, who in reality have committed minor offenses { if not none at all }, the criminal offense cash cow of disastrous drugs laws, and a complete lack of mental health competency – both in hiring prison employees and police, justice, and prison handling of the mentally ill. I believe the percentage is 97 percent for quick processing of those charged with offences and deterred from seeking trial. It’s rare for those charged to go to trial simply because people are terrorized by a monster-load of supposed criminal penalties. Most of which are absurd, but come with time that scares those facing grotesquely disproportionate sentences to plead out. This saves the “Justice System” expense on trials and, for those who insist on a trial { almost inevitably innocent }, a retaliatory longer sentence is the result. Antiquated drugs laws have proven to be not only ineffective but, as with alcohol prohibition, to feed the problem by creating a booming industry, from street dealers to cartels to police and governmental agencies. Decriminalization – as in Portugal and other countries – would dramatically reduce availability, consumption, and crime; saving many lives. But the DEA, police, and other government agencies would lose revenue. Or, in the case of the DEA, be shuttered. Mental health problems are increasing daily, given socio-economic pressures in late-stage capitalism and empire, and increasing social isolation. As John Kiriakou notes, prison hiring of educated { and mentally healthy } individuals would greatly reduce the incidents of violence, sexual violation, and corruption rampant among employees. The system is so degenerate, maniacally punitive, and underpaid, that most only society’s bottom of the barrel seek such employment. Treating and compassionatly addressing the mentally ill or otherwise challenged in prisons is a vital part of a complete top down rehabilitation of a deeply sick system. The whole notion of rehabilitation could be a great idea if it was seriously considered. This includes addressing a fascistic, racist police in the U.S.A., that are trained – all the more so, equipped with combat gear – to view the general public as an enemy. Mental health-wise, a ticking bomb like Derrick Chauvin should have been screened out – if such a screening process existed – the day he applied for employment. The entire system – police, Judicial system, prisons, and draconian drugs and other moronic laws – is in desperate need of demolition and reimagining. As it is, the system generates crime and mortality instead of reducing it.

  3. Steve
    December 1, 2023 at 12:02

    Sick, sick, sick.
    “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” George Carlin

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