Asthmatic Prisoner Doused with Pepper Spray, Refused Medical Care, Dies
Just Another Day in the Texas Prison System
Outside support activists have learned of another Texas prisoner dead, due to a combination of guard brutality and medical neglect.
For three consecutive nights medical staff were summoned to the cell of Christopher Woolverton, at the Clements Unit in Amarillo, because he was lying on the floor barely responsive. Finally, on the afternoon of October 22, a nurse came in and, seeing he was still not moving, summoned sergeant Andrew Gratz and Lieutenant Matthew Seymour, informing them that Woolverton was scheduled to see a doctor.
At this point, normally, things should have improved for Woolverton. After a criminally long delay of three days, during which time he was in clear distress, he should have finally received medical attention. But that’s not what happened.
A letter from Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, Minister of Defense of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (Prison Chapter) being held at the Clements Unit in Amarillo, lays out the tragic sequence of events. Remember, when reading this, that Woolverton had been unresponsive, lying on the ground seemingly unable to move, for days at this point. Rashid recounts how,
“Gratz, a notoriously abusive guard, told Woolverton to get up and come to the door and submit to handcuffs or he’d be OC-gassed and forcibly removed by an extraction team of riot armored guards. Woolverton was not responsive. The nurse told him they were going to gas him and to ‘remember how they gassed you the last time and you couldn’t breathe?’ She implored him to get up and come to the door, which he failed to do—in obvious medical distress.
“The nurse and others left and the warden and several other people in street clothes came in, looked in at Woolverton, laughed and left.
“Moments later, Gratz, Seymour and the nurse returned with a team or riot armored guards with gas masks and OC gas. Gratz proceeded, as the nurse watched, to spray Woolverton several times directly in the head (drenching his face and head) with OC gas. After about ten minutes the team rushed in to restrain him by force. He was then bodily lifted and put on a gurney and rolled out of the pod.
“He was several minutes later brought back in and made to stand by Gratz and the team (directly in front of my cell) with his body and legs trembling like a newborn colt. He distinctly stated, ‘I can’t breathe.’ They also had a cup mask (like construction workers wear) over his nose and mouth. He couldn’t walk, so they bodily picked him up by ankles and arms and carried him into a cell where they left him lying completely naked with no property and without his asthma inhalers. He was not decontaminated of gas. This all transpired at around 2:30 P.M.
“Several guards came into the unit and went to his cell and made jokes about his lying nude on the floor. He didn’t move.”
Woolverton was left like this, lying on the floor of his cell, hardly able to breathe, for almost 24 hours. In this condition, he died. Rashid:
“At 1:30 on October 23, 2013, with his having still not moved—several nurses along with a lieutenant William Williamson and others rushed into Woolverton’s cell to find him dead on the floor in the same spot. They tried CPR to no avail. As they picked his body up and placed it onto a gurney his lower extremities clearly appeared stiff and unbending—rigor mortis having apparently set in. He was obviously several hours dead despite guards supposedly making routing rounds in the unit.”
The case of Christopher Woolverton is not unique. Gas is frequently used against prisoners in the Clements Unit, and throughout the entire Texas prison system cell extractions routinely provide an excuse for violent abuse. Woolverton’s is not the first such case that, combined with medical neglect, has led to a fatal outcome.
Take the case of Larry Louis Cox: in 20071, Cox died from injuries sustained after a confrontation with guards during a cell extraction at the Estelle Unit. Although his hands were cuffed behind his back at the time, he was thrown to the ground, his head hitting his metal bunk and fracturing his spine. Due to the severity of this injury he was unable to stand to his feet—as a result, prison medical staff reported him as “refusing” treatment. On January 26—after lying on the ground in agony for two days—Cox was finally transferred to an outside hospital, where he died ten days later. A medical examiner would find that Cox’s death constituted homicide by “medical neglect complicating blunt force trauma,” and yet despite recommendations to the contrary from the Office of the Inspector General, no charges were laid.
The impunity with which guards and medical staff were treated in Cox’s case simply guaranteed that such a tragedy would happen again. As it now has, to Christopher Woolverton.
Rashid explains that,
“In every prison/prison system I’ve been, there is a strict rule against using OC gas on prisoners with asthma and similar respiratory conditions, because it is known to be a fatal mix. Not only did they gas a known asthmatic, but they put a mask on his nose and mouth to ensure he breathed nothing but the gas fumes that saturated his face. His head was so wet from gas that his hair was wet and plastered to his forehead and scalp. He was then left without his asthma pumps, naked in a bare cell on the floor where he died, without decontamination.”
The horrific nature of such abuse notwithstanding, unless there is outside mobilization around this case, it is unlikely that anything will be done to prevent future similar deaths. Already, it is clear that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC) is not worried with even having to go through the motions of pretending to investigate why Woolverton died. Rashid explains that despite the fact that many prisoners in the pod are willing to testify as to what happened, “None of us many witnesses to Woolverton’s death have been questioned or interviewed about this blatant medical murder/wrongful death.”
Rashid, who has himself been subjected to violence numerous times since his arrival in Texas earlier this year, ends by noting that, “If this situation isn’t enough to energize folks to protest the foul TDCJ conditions, I don’t expect anything will.”
Karl Kersplebedeb is publisher of Defying the Tomb: Selected Prison Writings and Art of Kevin Rashid Johnson featuring exchanges with an Outlaw, by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, Paperback, November 30, 2010.
1 Roma Khanna, “Injured Inmate Spent Two Days on Cell Floor,” Houston Chronicle Jan. 23, 2008.