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Murder by Pepper Spray: Remembering Jamel Floyd on the Third Anniversary of His Death at the Hands of Brooklyn Prison Guards

On June 3, 2020, Floyd was experiencing a mental-health crisis while being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Guards responded by blasting him with several canisters of pepper spray.

Lara-Nour Walton Jun 8, 2023

It was as if the sky realized it was June 3, and knew that it had to grieve. A blanket of solemn clouds cast a uniform shadow on the façade of the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Sunset Park. It was there, three years ago, that prison guards pepper sprayed a Black man to death. His name was Jamel Floyd. 

Floyd, 35, had been incarcerated for over a decade and had four months left until his parole eligibility date. After his anticipated discharge, Oct. 13, 2020, the Long Island native had plans. He would start a trucking business with his brother Ramel. He would walk his mother — who deliberately scheduled her wedding for after Floyd’s release — down the aisle. He would be free. But, MDC correctional officers took his life instead. 

The life of a man who was a son, a brother and an uncle commemorated by a radical marching band, red-and-white balloons and abolitionist chants calling for the end of mass incarceration.

A smattering of people congregated before the Brooklyn prison to memorialize Floyd on the third anniversary of his killing and demand justice. Members of his family were easy to spot — some held bullhorns, others distributed chant-lyric fliers to onlookers; almost all sported red shirts plastered with pictures of Floyd. One even had a photo of Floyd printed on their phone case. 

The Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a protest marching band, provided spirited musical accompaniment as the crowd bellowed refrains like “Brick by brick, wall by wall! Tear it down and free them all!”

“We’re here to make some noise,” said James Floyd, the victim’s father. He looked up defiantly at the imposing jailhouse. The width of the building’s windows were comparable to that of medieval arrow slits, but he was determined to be heard through them: “I hope your day has been alright gentlemen. We’re here to make it a little happier,” he shouted to MDC’s incarcerated people. “We recognize all the young fellas that have been locked up, abused and mistreated. We’re gonna make a lot of noise,” he assured them. 

But the crowd invariably grew quiet whenever Floyd’s mother, Donna Mays, took hold of the loudspeaker. A year ago, Mays filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and 30 of its staff members and correctional officers for wrongful death. “My son was locked up in the Special Housing Unit [SHU]. Alone. By himself,” her somber speech began. 

James Floyd, the father of Jamel Floyd, speak at the June 3 vigil outside the Metropolitan Detention Center. “We’re going to make some noise,” he told the crowd. Sue Brisk

Court documents show that Floyd had been in solitary confinement for four days leading before he was killed. In the early hours of the morning of June 3, 2020, he started to experience what the suit calls “a severe mental health or medical crisis.” After hours of begging for medical attention, Floyd — who had in the past been treated for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, hypertension and asthma — tore his sink from the wall and knocked a hole in his cell door window. At this disturbance, guards sprayed “several canisters of pepper spray directly into his locked cell.”

“When any person is in the SHU — a box the size of a closet — no type of chemical should be sprayed,” Mays said. She continued: “When [pepper spray] is used in an individual cell, I find that to be murder.” 

The Department of Justice of the Inspector General claims that Floyd’s death was accidental, “caused by cardiac arrhythmia due to hypertensive cardiovascular disease in the setting of probable proarrhythmic gene mutation, with a contributing factor being recent synthetic cannabinoid use.” 

However, one of Mays’ attorneys, Nick Bourland, took issue with the DOJ’s assessment. “There is no indication that any drugs caused Jamel Floyd’s death,” he stated. “Our understanding is that if the Medical Examiner’s Office finds any traces whatsoever of a synthetic cannabinoid during an autopsy, they will list it as a contributing factor,” Bourland told CNN in 2021. 

Floyd’s mother is pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against 30 Bureau of Prisons officials and correctional officers.

Instead, the suit, which a judge has yet to rule on, concludes that the federal government, despite being aware of Floyd’s preexisting health conditions, used excessive force and refused to provide hasty emergency medical assistance, thus resulting in wrongful death. 

“A man couldn’t breathe; a man had asthma. And y’all knew that,” cried James Floyd into the bullhorn.

In 2019, MDC’s former warden, Cameron Lindsay asserted that the prison is “one of the most troubled, if not the most troubled facility in the Bureau of Prisons.” Even though her son lost his life due to those conditions, Mays has refused to be bitter. “The first year, I had to forgive them… because if you don’t forgive, you’re not gonna get justice. You can’t walk around angry because they messed up,” she said. “The second year, I had only happy thoughts about my son — everything I could remember from birth on,” she added. The third anniversary had now come and gone. But for Mays, “There’s not one day in 365 days of the year that my son does not cross my mind.”

At the close of the memorial, the Floyds handed out red and white balloons to be released on the count of three. “They’re gonna go to heaven” shrieked a young member of the family in delight as he watched the balloons rush freely into the sky above.

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