In 2001, Coleman was an inmate housed at the David Wade Correctional Center located in North Louisiana. The African American inmate was killed by a prison security one hot July morning that year.
“This is why we love our jobs,” the tall, lanky prison Colonel shouted as he stormed up and down the disciplinary cellblock tier.
“This is why we love our jobs,” the Colonel repeated as he stopped and menacingly stared into each cell at the sullen inmates, daring each to challenge his authority.
The Colonel was leading a “cell extraction team” that morning. The team was comprised of other ranking security personnel at the prison. The team had just “extracted” Coleman from his cell.
Armed with an electronic “stun shield”—a device that administers a 50,000-volt electrical charge—the extraction team had hit Coleman with three charges. The team then beat, kicked and stomped him into a submissive, fetal position before dragging him out of the cell. One of the lower ranking guards—probably trying to impress his supervisors—then jumped up and down on Coleman’s head while another guard used a water hose to wash away the feces produced by the electrical charges.
As the Colonel continued to walk up and down the tier, the two lower ranking guards continued to kick and beat Coleman’s unconscious body. This extraction process was called “non-lethal force”—a process that too often allows some out-of-control guards to inflict as much pain and physical damage to the inmate as possible.
Once the physical abuse was over, the extraction team dragged Coleman’s limp body into a cell equipped with a “restraint chair.” This torture device completely immobilizes the inmate. His head, arms, legs, and chest are tightly restrained by leather straps. The “chair,” as it is known in the prison lexicon, is supposed to be used only in extreme circumstances when an inmate is in an uncontrollable state of violence posing a serious risk to himself or others.
Kevin Coleman was found dead in the restraint chair the following day from what prison officials described as an “apparent heart attack.” Based on the detailed information that had been given to me by inmate witnesses, I suspect Coleman was dead or near complete respiratory failure when he was strapped in the chair. The three electrical charges were enough to stop his heart, not to mention the brutal beating that was more than enough to kill a mule.
There is no doubt that Coleman was a problem, even a dangerous inmate. He had been transferred from a parish jail to the Wade facility because jail officials could no longer deal with him. The paranoid schizophrenic inmate immediately became a disciplinary problem at the Wade facility, accumulating a record of disruptive and assaultive behavior. He had attacked guards and other inmates alike, refusing to cooperate with prison authority at any level and refusing to acclimate to the prison peer pressure system. Large doses of psychotropic medications could not quiet the demons that tormented him.
On the day of the cell extraction, Coleman was scheduled for a hearing in a local courtroom on an assault charge against a prison guard. He refused to put on an orange jumpsuit given to him by the security escort team assigned to take him to court. All inmates were required to wear “jumps” to the local courthouse – a practice that reflected the racism, hostility, and contempt the local officials harbored against inmates in general.
No one will ever truly know who, or what, precipitated the confrontation that morning between Coleman and the “trip officers.” Those officers were a privileged, and corrupt, group—arrogant, quick to curse and humiliate inmates being escorted to court. They would routinely lie to “get an inmate” with a disciplinary report if he refused to cooperate with their way of handling “court trips.”
Whatever motivated him that fateful morning Coleman refused to put on the jumpsuit as he instructed to do by the trip officers. Wade officials said every non-lethal measure available was used to get Coleman to cooperate and put on the jumpsuit. It was only after these non-lethal efforts failed, they said, that the cell extraction team entered the inmate’s cell with the electronic stun shield. Prison officials said only one electrical charge was inflicted, and that Coleman was still fighting and resisting after it was administered. At that point, officials said, a decision was made to put Coleman in the restraint chair.
Inmate witnesses, however, vehemently disputed that official account. They said Coleman was “hit three times” with the stun shield, brutally beaten inside his cell, and dragged out of the cell where the beating continued before he was placed in the restraint chair.
I gave my wife the details I had about Coleman’s death. She alerted the Associated Press in New Orleans about the death. They ran a story about the death that would have otherwise gone unnoticed by the public.
Wade officials rushed to do “damage control” by putting their official “spin” on Coleman’s death. They contacted officials with the American Correctional Association – a group with whom the Louisiana corrections system maintained an incestuous relationship through the ACA accreditation process – who defended the use of the restraint chair.
The local sheriff’s department said it would “investigate” the matter. That was like the fox, feathers hanging out its mouth, saying it would investigate the disappearance of the hen. Detectives interviewed several inmate witnesses who were then quickly transferred to other state penal facilities on trumped up disciplinary charges.
Kevin Coleman’s death ultimately melted away into an official black hole.
There are scores of Coleman-like deaths each year in the nation’s prison system. They are official murders that rarely garner media attention. Coleman’s death would have gone unrecorded had my wife not called the Associated Press. That media attention at least forced Wade officials to explain, or cover up, what happened.
No one should face death like Coleman faced it. His death would be “murder” in any society – except in prison disciplinary units, military torture chambers, and renegade police interrogation rooms.
There are situations in prison when force, both lethal and non-lethal, are necessary to control a violent situation, but a mentally disturbed inmate refusing to put on a jumpsuit is not one of those situations.
Official crimes are committed routinely in the world of prison – and there is no official accountability for them. No one was, or ever will be, held accountable for Kevin Coleman’s death.
And, indeed, that as why the tall, lanky Colonel loved his job.