March 28, 2004 - The Bloomington Alternative (IN)

Imagine There's No Justice

by Steven Higgs, Editor

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Watching the Monroe County Jail videotape of James Borden's death conjured up vivid memories of a conversation I had with a Monroe County Commissioner in the 1990s. We were in the Courthouse Meeting Room just after a public discussion on a request from the County Sheriff to arm his deputies with Uzis.

Drug dealers had 'em, the argument went, so the good guys needed 'em, too.

"Oh Steve," the commissioner said, touching my forearm, looking me directly in the eye. "Could you imagine?"

Unfortunately, I could. I had done some in-depth reporting on the infamous Cowboy Cops' People's-Park lineup. And I had been enlightened on some of the more nefarious goings on behind the scenes of local law enforcement. I was once pushed to the floorboard of a Chevy Blazer by a guy telling me tales of corruption who didn't want cops seeing him with a reporter.

I imagined guys empowered with extraordinarily efficient lethal weapons who had no business possessing such power. County policy makers at that time opted for common sense. The Uzi request died.

Watching James Borden's death by Taser at the hands of the Monroe County Jail staff last Nov. 5 provided a stark reminder of just how far down the priority list common sense has fallen in the 21st-Century American police state. It's frightening to imagine.

The Sheriff's Uzi request came at a time when the drug-war-fueled militarization of the American criminal justice system had exploded.

In 1980, the U.S. prison population totaled 474,368, according to U.S. Bureau of Prison Statistics reported last June on PBS' weekly news magazine NOW with Bill Moyers. Ten years later, the prison population had more than doubled to 1.15 million. It nearly doubled again by 2001, to 2.02 million.

The incarceration rate for drug offenses in 1980 was 15 inmates per 100,000, NOW reported. By 1996, it had reached 148 inmates per 100,000, a tenfold increase in 16 years. More than half of the U.S. prison population in 2002 - 54.7 percent - was incarcerated for substance abuse offenses.

The International Center for Prison Studies at King's College in London reports that the United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world - 700 per 100,000 population. A greater percentage of American citizens are behind bars than in Russia, the only country in the world that rivals the U.S. in this measure of shame - 680 per 100,000.

The Monroe County Jail, whose opening I covered as a reporter in the mid-1980s, was built to hold 126 inmates. Today, it's not uncommon for the jail population to be more than twice capacity. The number of inmates has topped 300 on occasion.

Overcrowding at the Monroe County Jail that James Borden died in last Nov. 5 was so severe that the Indiana Civil Liberties sued the county last June over it. "The Indiana Department of Correction, which inspects all Indiana jails, has noted that the jail is overcrowded all the time and lacks sufficient staffing to operate properly," the ICLU said in a news release.

The county's insurer has threatened to cut off the jail's insurance unless overcrowding is reduced and staffing increased.

Over the 21-year period when the jail inmate population more than doubled, county leaders did not respond by increasing the number of jailers. They more heavily armed them. Foremost among the arsenal, the M26 Taser, a "non-lethal" stun gun capable of delivering a 50,000-volt shot of electricity to targets up to 21 feet away.

The Indiana Administrative Code details the conditions under which jailers may use force: "The use of physical force by jail personnel shall be restricted to instances of justifiable self-protection, protection of others, protection of property, and prevention of escapes."

James Borden landed in the Monroe County Jail on the evening of Nov. 5 because of a substance abuse problem. He was taken there from his home in Bedford for violating house arrest for a Monroe County drunken driving conviction.

That his case did not meet any of the conditions for the legal use of force is evident from the written statements of jail staff and the videotape.

"Borden was handcuffed behind his back," Jailer David Shaw wrote in his written report of the incident. "I was facing Borden at that time. (Borden was not wearing shackles). Borden was wearing a pair of shorts which was around his ankles."

When the officers asked Borden to step out of his shorts, "he was being combative and refused," Shaw wrote. "I (D. Shaw) dried stunned Borden in the lower abdominal area. At that time Borden lifted his feet so we could remove his shorts."

That first Tasering of James Borden took place in the jail "sally port," where squad cars drive into the Jail from the Seventh Street alley. Prisoners are transferred from the sally port to the booking area. Both are locked down to prevent escape.

The jail videotape was made in the booking area. The sally port is out of camera range. Borden is visible for only a few moments when he is brought into the booking area. But that brief portion of tape contradicts the officers' descriptions.

Shaw describes Borden as "still being combative" in the booking area. Officer S. Corps wrote: "Inside booking, Borden began violently shaking his body around and kicking his legs. So Officer Shaw and Officer Hutton put Borden against the northeast corner of the wall."

The video shows three jailers escorting Borden into the booking area, two of them firmly holding his arms while Shaw faces Borden, grasping his shirt with both hands. They hold him briefly, back away, and then push him against the wall and then onto the floor, out of camera view.

Borden does not appear to be physically resisting the officers, even when the tape is played at fast forward.

The officers further claim in their written statements that Borden continued being combative on the floor, where Shaw Tasered him two more times in the "buttocks."

James Borden died minutes later on the floor of the Monroe County Jail, handcuffed, in his underwear. The Monroe County Coroner ruled that the Taser shocks contributed to his death.

Can you imagine?

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