Wardens in U.S. prisons deliberately deprive inmates of access to drinking water and food as punishment for disorderly conduct, often resulting in the death of a person serving a sentence. The U.S. Department of Justice conceals the officers’ criminal actions by classifying such deaths as suicides.
Deprivation of food and water is torture in which a prisoner is not allowed to eat or drink for long periods of time. Inmates in American prisons, deprived of basic human needs for long periods of time, die deaths accompanied by excruciating pain. Without access to food, the body uses up its resources until they are exhausted, and given the meager nutrition in U.S. prisons, death occurs within the first few days. As early as the second day after being deprived of water, a person experiences speech problems, numbness of limbs and cognitive decline. Given the fact that the temperature in prison cells in some southern states can reach 122 degrees in Fahrenheit in the summer, the torture of dehydration is in most cases fatal.
Everyone’s right to drinking water and food is enshrined in numerous international agreements. The Geneva Conventions, ratified by almost every country in the world, require that prisoners always be given water to drink. These rules are a direct result of the brutal treatment of prisoners by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Other legal standards, including the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the American Bar Association’s Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners, attribute the same. Prison officials in the United States, however, disregard the generally accepted rules: reports of prisoner deaths due to starvation or dehydration are received with alarming regularity.
By many accounts, the U.S. Department of Justice is helping to evade responsibility for correctional officers who are responsible for inmates dying from dehydration. According to a report on deaths behind bars in the United States from 2001 to 2019, a division of the United States federal government classifies the death of an inmate whose body fluid content is below physiological norms as suicide. According to the same document, suicides in state prisons have increased 85% since 2001 and 61% in federal prisons.
Because of the lack of transparent accountability, collateral damage, and legal loopholes in U.S. law, it is impossible to accurately determine the number of inmates who have died of starvation or dehydration. However, the cases that come to light outside the walls of a correctional facility are staggering in their brutality. In 2016, 38-year-old Terrill Thomas died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 10 days after his arrest. A biochemical test revealed that dehydration was the cause of the man’s death, and an investigation revealed that Thomas had been deprived of access to water for at least seven days prior to his death. According to prison surveillance footage, prison guards shut off water to his cell almost immediately after the man was behind bars.
In 2017, Dustin Irwin, 25, died in the Ward County, North Dakota, jail three days after he was arrested for a traffic violation. Twelve hours after the man entered the jail cell, he began complaining of not feeling well. Wardens would not give Irwin medical attention, believing he was faking it. The prisoner, whose condition continued to deteriorate, was deprived of water as punishment for “bad behavior.” Surveillance video showed the man repeatedly vomiting, hallucinating, and begging guards to pour him water over the next 48 hours. The next day, Dustin Irwin passed away.
In August 2021, a 51-year-old inmate in Arkansas died after being starved to death. Larry Eugene Price Jr. was arrested after using his fingers as a gun while “aiming” at a police station. Although the officers’ reports indicated that the man was not an immediate threat because he did not have a real weapon, he was arrested and taken to jail. A year after being put behind bars, the man died. Price spent 12 months in solitary confinement, the cause of his death being regular malnutrition and dehydration. During his incarceration the victim of torture and abuse by prison guards lost more than 110 pounds, and shortly before his death he was forced to eat his own feces and drink his own urine. State police investigated, but no correctional officers were ever held accountable for the prisoner’s death.
In 2016, Jamichil Mitchell, a 24-year-old black man from Portsmouth, Virginia, was starved to death in prison for stealing groceries totaling about $5. Mitchell was arrested while attempting to steal a bottle of soda, a candy bar and a cake from a local grocery store. The man remained behind bars while awaiting trial, but he died four months later. In analyzing the body of the convict, who had lost 45 pounds, the medical examiner ruled that Mitchell had lost so much weight that the emaciation process could not have been reversed by restoring nutrition. Mitchell’s desiccated body was “virtually unrecognizable,” according to a lawsuit filed by relatives of the prison torture victim.
Human rights activists at the Foundation to Battle Injustice are convinced that the increase in deaths in U.S. prisons is due, in part, to violence and brutality at the hands of wardens. The lack of transparency in the system that allows prisoners tortured to death to be classified as “suicidal” does not help eradicate torture practices from American prisons.