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New York's State Prisons Are Brutal and Deadly. That's Something We Can Change

Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining NY JB Nicholas / Gothamist

It shouldn’t take celebrity Instagram posts to kindle New Yorkers’ outrage about an unexplained and possibly unnatural death in one of our state prisons. Yet that is what happened in the case of Anthony Myrie, who died last week at the age of 24 after collapsing at Greene Correctional Facility in the northern Hudson Valley. More to the point, it’s something that seldom happens at all, in a reputedly progressive state with a prison system where subhuman conditions, widespread abuse, medical neglect and even death regularly go unnoticed and unremarked.

On February 11, just hours after speaking with her husband on the phone, Myrie’s wife received a call from the prison with the devastating news that he had died. For days, his family tried to get more information about what had happened to Myrie, a Brooklyn native and father of three who was just a few months into his sentence for attempted sale of a controlled substance. In grief and anger, and suspecting a coverup by the prison, Myrie’s brother finally took to Instagram—and caught the eye of rappers Meek Mill and Cardi B.

“So no major news platforms gonna cover this?????,” wrote Mill, who has 15.5 million Instagram followers. “His family can’t find his body after they contacted his family and said he died in state custody!!! New York speak up!!!” Cardi B, with 40.8 million followers, wrote, “GREENCORRECTIONAL FACILITY YOU NOT FUCKING GETTING AWAY WITH THIS ONE BITCH!!,” adding that a friend of hers had been beaten by corrections officers at Greene.

Both posts went viral, drawing tens of thousands of enraged comments—and soon, dozens of stories in the local and national media. Only a few of them mentioned that while the treatment of Myrie’s family was surely a travesty, and the circumstances of his death might turn out to be nefarious as well, neither one was a unique or even uncommon occurrence in the annals of the New York State prison system.

Likewise, the horrific conditions recently endured by people held in the Metropolitan Detention Center, who were trapped in cells without heat or light on the coldest days of the winter, received widespread media coverage and visits from local and national elected officials. New Yorkers were shocked by the vision of desperate men and women pounding on barred windows above a Brooklyn street. But desperation of many kinds is felt behind the walls of prisons located in remote corners of upstate New York, and remains largely unnoticed except by those with incarcerated loved ones.

Much of what happens in prison stays in prison, but some stories do make it beyond the walls via lawsuits, investigative journalism, and incarcerated people who are willing risk retaliation to expose the truth. These stories are enough to show a pattern of unrestrained—and often unpunished—brutality and neglect in the past five years alone, spanning many of the state’s 54 prisons.

For example, the high-profile escape of two men from Clinton Correctional Facility, in the summer of 2015, brought on a paroxysm of violence as officers tried to torture information out of men who knew the escapees, beating them while handcuffed and choking them with plastic bags. Their efforts were futile, since the only people who had aided in the escape were members of the prison staff.

A single corrections officer, Troy Mitchell, has cost New York state almost $1 million in settlements of abuse and sexual harassment cases. Most recently, in a federal lawsuit filed last year, Matthew Raymond alleges that Mitchell waterboarded him and beat him so badly in Auburn prison in 2016 that he can no longer urinate without a catheter. He also says that he did not receive outside medical treatment for months after the attack. Mitchell was finally suspended without pay in August 2017 after reports of similar attacks on two other men.

At times, the physical abuse is deadly. In 2015, a 30-year-old man named Samuel Harris, who had a history of bipolar disorder, was fatally beaten by up to 20 officers at Fishkill Correctional, including a group known as the Beat Up Squad. Incarcerated men who witnessed the attack said he was thrown or dragged down a staircase and jumped on “like he was a trampoline.” An autopsy classified Harris’ death a homicide, but the officers did not face criminal charges. Several incarcerated witnesses of the violence said they were put in solitary confinement and threatened physically after speaking about the attack.

Sexual abuse is appallingly commonplace in New York’s state prisons, as well. In 2012, at the now-closed Bayview Correctional, a 24-year-old woman was repeatedly raped by an officer named James Ford Jr, who had also assaulted other women over the previous four years. Some assaults took place in full view of the officer’s station, and in one instance Ford smiled and tipped his hat at the security camera. According to the most recent available numbers, there were 258 reports of “sexual misconduct” by staff members in New York State prisons in 2015, and 242 in 2016—far outnumbering reports of such acts committed by incarcerated people.

Individuals who report physical and sexual abuse are sometimes sent to solitary confinement on manufactured disciplinary charges. Despite incremental reductions in the use of solitary, New York still holds about 3,600 people, or 7.5 percent of its prison population, in 23-hour-a-day isolation—a rate far above the national average. While UN guidelines recommend limiting solitary to 15 days, there are men in New York who have been in solitary for more than 30 years. And solitary sentences are doled out to African Americans and Latinos at far higher rates than to whites—just one expression of the endemic racism in many upstate prisons.

The use of solitary confinement is likely one of the factors contributing to a prison suicide rate in New York that was 56 percent higher than the national average; about 30 percent of those suicides happened in solitary. In 2014, 21-year-old Benjamin Van Zandt, who had a history of mental illness, hanged himself in his solitary confinement cell at Fishkill. His father, Douglas Van Zandt, like Anthony Myrie’s family, recalls that “we were treated horribly by the prison the entire time. I was frantic after we learned our son was dead and tried to get information, but nobody would take my call.”

Some incarcerated lives are lost not to brutality or torture, but to simple neglect. An unpublished November 2018 report by a medical review board found that over the previous five years, around 50 deaths in New York prisons could have been prevented by commonplace medical or mental health care.

On June 6, 2015, Governor Cuomo toured Dannemora correctional facility where two inmates escaped (Governor's Office)

It’s no secret that the public tends to pay less attention to suffering and death when they take place behind bars, and to place less value on the lives of people who have been branded as criminals. But none of the abuse that happens in New York’s correctional facilities is supposed to be part of any prison sentence. And in fact, we are all more responsible for these violations of human rights and human decency when they take place in public institutions that are purportedly maintained on our behalf.

State oversight bodies have proved themselves unable to significantly affect conditions in New York’s prisons, especially in the face of resistance from NYSCOBPA, the powerful correction officers union. But New Yorkers now have a direct opportunity to bring about real change in our prisons and jails. With the new legislature in place in Albany, bills have been introduced or are expected soon on bail reform, speedy trials, parole reform, and early release for some aging people in prison.

The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, in particular, would seriously challenge the brutal punishment paradigm in our prisons and increase transparency and oversight. At present, it is close to passing in both houses, but has not yet received the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo. (The governor’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.)

The governor has introduced his own set of less sweeping criminal justice reforms. But New Yorkers should push for real changes that have the rule of law behind them. Only then will our prisons cease to be a shame to our state, and only then will families like those of Anthony Myrie, Samuel Harris, and Benjamin Van Zandt be spared unbearable and unconscionable losses.

Jean Casella and Katie Rose Quandt are Co-Director and Staff Writer, respectively, for Solitary Watch, a watchdog group that investigates and exposes the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

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