Human Rights

Prison Guard 'Beat Up' Squad Accused of Killing Inmate: Why Prison Abuse Is So Common and Overlooked

America is the only democracy in the world that doesn't have independent oversight of prisons.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.org

Samuel Harrell’s death at the hands of a group of correctional officers at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon N.Y. known as the “beat-up squad” is a tragic, but all too common instance of abuse taking place in America’s correctional facilities.

According to an investigation by the New York Times, Harrell, who has bipolar disorder, got into an argument with correctional officers on April 21, after packing his bags and saying he was headed home. He had several more years to serve on his sentence but Harrell was known to behave erratically.  

More than 12 witnesses claim that at least 20 correctional officers joined in kicking and punching Harrell after he was thrown to the floor. One inmate told the Times that correctional officers jumped on Harrell as if he were "a trampoline." An ambulance was called, but correctional officers didn’t mention a physical altercation. They claimed Harrell had likely overdosed on K2, a synthetic marijuana.

According to the autopsy report, no illicit drugs were found in his system. He died of cardiac arrhythmia, “following physical altercation with corrections officers.” The coroner ruled Harrell’s death a homicide. According to the Times, no officers have been disciplined in connection with Harrell’s death, but inmates who have spoken to his family and news reporters say they have been placed in solitary confinement and threatened with violence after speaking out.

New York isn’t the only state that has issues with correctional officers abusing men and women who are serving time in prison. Nearly 50 percent of inmate rapes are carried out by correctional officers, according to a recent study, but prosecutions are rare. When a correctional officer reported a fellow guard at a Florida prison for gouging out a mentally ill inmate’s eye, he was fired. Earlier this year, three former correctional officers at Angola Prison, in Louisiana, were sentenced for abusing an inmate and covering it up.

Statistics on the exact nature and regularity of abuse in America’s prisons are elusive and shrouded in secrecy. There are a lot of reasons for that, but generally, it is because most Americans have low opinions of people who are serving prison time, so prisoners get little sympathy from the public when allegations of abuse arise.

Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, says it’s ironic that society often doesn’t trust the word of inmates when they make claims of abuse, yet no one questions them when they plead guilty to a crime.

“They’re sworn to tell the truth,” she told AlterNet. “And the judge, based on the belief that they are telling the truth, finds them guilty and imposes a sentence. In fact, judges reject pleas when they believe defendants are not being truthful. So, there is a total acceptance of people being truthful when they are pleading guilty to a crime. Then suddenly when they are saying corrections officers have been engaging in criminal conduct and suddenly they’re not being truthful.”

According to the ACLU, America is the only democracy in the world that doesn’t have independent oversight of its prisons. While it is not uncommon for the Department of Justice to enforce oversight of a police department, it is rare for such intervention to take place at a prison or jail. In a rare case, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department just agreed to federal oversight of its jails after several of its deputies were convicted of abusing inmates. 

Khalilah Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, says the most disturbing issue with prison abuses is that the public is not demanding transparency of America’s correctional facilities.

“We’re in a time in our country where everyone wants transparency in government. We want to know what people are doing, the source of the money, how our tax dollars are being used. Except when it comes to prisons,” Brown-Dean, whose research focuses on prison reform, told AlterNet. “We’re okay ceding that kind of power to prison officials to not just police themselves but to pay themselves, too. And when you’re talking about life and death, which is what is happening in prisons, it undermines every value that this country is supposed to be built on.”

The U.S. Constitution guarantees legal protections for every citizen, but the rights of prisoners are more complicated because of their incarceration. An inmate who reports a dirty correctional officer still has to rely on that officer for protection. If a civilian reports a bad cop, the civilian doesn’t have to see the officer everyday. People who aren’t in jail have the protection of their homes and the American public is very attuned to challenging police brutality. That simply isn’t the case for people serving time.

A prisoner can file a federal lawsuit, but the Prison Litigation Reform Act makes it difficult. The prisoner must exhaust all administrative remedies at the prison first. Again, the prisoner has no protections against a staff member who wants to exact revenge. Another absurdity in PLRA: If an incarcerated person wants to file a lawsuit claiming emotional abuse, he has to provide proof of a physical injury.

In a 2012 paper advocating for independent oversight of American prisons, Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, wrote that the enormous number of incarcerated men and women in America and the federalist structure of our prison systems makes it impossible for a single national oversight system to work. Deitch recommends that each state should be charged with independently monitoring its prisons and jails, conduct unannounced inspections, have unlimited access to administrators, guards, prisoners, and facilities, and be required to report all findings to the public.

But there doesn’t seem to be much political will to create independent oversight. In Florida, legislators approved a bill for some oversight of its prisons but it falls short of outside supervision. There was once a legislative oversight panel on prisons in Tennessee, but Republicans abolished it four years ago. For now, our country’s prisons are allowed to self-regulate and there is no one recourse for correctional officers who abuse their power.

Soffiyah Elijah believes this is a moral problem the American public has to come to grips with to prevent more tragic deaths behind bars like Samuel Harrell.

“We have to start valuing and appreciating the humanity and dignity of every human being, no matter what they have been accused or convicted of,” she said. “We can’t strip someone of their humanity and their dignity because they have made a mistake and have broken the law.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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