In prisons, guards may have to physically touch people in prison from time to time. If they believe an incarcerated person is violating rules or a danger to others, guards may use force. That force may look like violence. But some guards might be violent without a reason. There are several things you can do about a prison guard that is being violent.
Can a guard be violent towards you in prison?
Sometimes. In general, laws and prison rules allow guards to use force to control prisoners. But these laws and rules do not allow for the use of “excessive force.” Prison staff also can’t be violent toward incarcerated people for no reason. The line between what is acceptable force and excessive or unnecessary force is not always clear.
When is a prison guard allowed to use force on you?
A guard must have a reason to use force. The laws about when force is and is not allowed are different in every state. But there are several common situations in which guards can use force.
- Intimidation. If one prisoner is intimidating another, a guard can use force as a way to prevent violence between the prisoners.
- Verbal resistance. If an incarcerated person refuses to comply with a guard’s orders, they can use a reasonable amount of force to make them comply.
- Passive resistance. If prisoners disobey an order from a guard, the guard can use a reasonable amount of force to compel order.
- Defensive resistance. If an incarcerated person “fights back” in response to a guard’s use of force, they can use more force to maintain control.
- Active aggression. If a prisoner threatens or acts violently toward staff or a peer a guard can use whatever force they think they need to use for their own safety.
Any time an incarcerated person uses force toward a guard, the guard can use force for their own safety, too. While there are other situations when guards can use force, these are the most common.
What can you do about a violent prison guard?
If you’re in prison, you should try not to make a situation with the guard worse. If they have been violent with you before, they may be violent with you again. And you do not have the same right to defend yourself in prison as you would on the outside.
If a guard is wrongly violent with you, you can report abuse directly to the Department of Justice. Because of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), this is true whether you are in federal or state prison. But you will contact a different office at the DOJ depending on where you are.
For federal prison, you need to contact the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). They have an online form, but you may not be able to access it from prison. You can call them, but they do not have a toll-free number. Their Washington, D.C., number is (202) 514-3435. You can also write to them at U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Investigations Division, 950 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20530.
For state prison, you need to contact the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. They have an online form. But they also have a toll-free number you can call at 1-855-856-1247. You can also send a written complaint to U.S. Dept. of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20530-0001.
Before making a complaint, try to remember as much as you can about the incident. Think of where exactly you were, the chain of events that led to the violence and any witnesses that may have been there. The more details you have the easier it will be for the DOJ to investigate.
A prison guard is allowed to be violent towards you in some situations. They can use some force to control you. But they are not allowed to use violence on you without reason. In addition, they cannot use “excessive force” on you. You can report a violent prison guard to the DOJ. That’s true even if you are in state prison.