Earlier this year, Lasswon Shannon, a 28-year-old jail guard, was putting a mentally ill inmate into a padded cell when an altercation occurred. The guard told superiors that the inmate spat on him, prompting him to reassert control of the situation by pinning the man against the wall with his forearm and taking him to the ground.
Normally, an inmate like Akrem Azzam could not have disproved that narrative. But in this case, video-surveillance footage exposed the jail guard’s lies. As it turns out, Shannon shut the door on the inmate, saw the incarcerated man spit toward him, and then reentered the cell. Then he punched the inmate in the face until he hit the ground. In reporting the altercation, he denied punching the inmate at all. “This case illustrates the importance of having a video when complaints are made against law-enforcement officials,” a prosecutor told the Houston Chronicle, who quoted him in its impressive series of articles on the jail. “We could not have proven this particular case without the video to disprove the justification given by the jailer.”
The incident is one of many that illustrates the need for pervasive video surveillance in America’s jails and prisons, where the abuse of inmates is an epidemic. And it provides context for jail altercations in Harris County, Texas, where there is no video evidence. Roughly 10,000 inmates are in the county’s jail system on a given day. There are honest guards who use legitimate force against inmates who are literally attacking them. But there’s also a lot of inmate abuse, and the status quo makes inmates unacceptably vulnerable to being victimized—especially since inmates have reason to suspect that complaining about the guards’ brutality may result in their being charged with crimes themselves.