Originally launched as a tool of trench combat during World War I, tear gas has been used around the world over the past century to enforce colonial rule, quell popular protests and aid in ethnic cleansing of civilians. This “riot control agent” was banned as a “method of war” by the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms control treaty that went into effect in 1997 and now binds nearly 200 countries (although numerous states are in violation). Yet in prisons and jails across the United States, far from any conventional battlefield or public scrutiny, tear gas and other chemical weapons are routinely used against people held captive in enclosed spaces, including solitary confinement.
Now, those forced to endure tear gas attacks while imprisoned in the United States are speaking out. In over 100 letters sent to the War Resisters League since 2013, incarcerated people told of being doused in chemical agents while denied the chance to wash their bodies. Individuals testified that they were left with burns, scars and memories of agony and suffocation.