A prisoner advocacy organization demanded Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Justice launch an extended investigation into the New York state prison system to uncover and fix what it said was the system's culture of violence. In a statement, the Correctional Association of New York responded to a New York Times article published Tuesday about the April death of 30-year-old Samuel Harrell. It said the case was "a reminder that the entire prison system is out of control and irreparably broken."
Harrell was serving out a sentence for drug charges at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, earlier this year when on April 21 he told people in the prison he was going home. Harrell, who had bipolar disorder, wasn't due to leave until at least 2020, and a confrontation with correction officers ensued.
The Times reported that as many as 20 officers, some of whom the prisoners called the "Beat Up Squad," kicked, punched and insulted Harrell, who was black. They then either pushed or carried him down a flight of stairs as they called for an ambulance. When paramedics arrived, the officers mentioned Harrell had likely overdosed on synthetic marijuana.
Harrell was pronounced dead at a hospital that night. Autopsy results showed he died of cardiac arrhythmia after an altercation with the officers and the death was ruled a homicide. That sparked a four-month police investigation into the death, but no officers have been disciplined in the case.
A spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association told the Times it was “reviewing all the facts before rushing to judgment" while working "to ensure a resolution to this tragic incident." Meanwhile, the state police were expected soon to present evidence in the Harrell investigation to the Dutchess County district attorney's office.
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The correctional association asserted that the Harrell case was not an anomaly. In 2013, the nonprofit published a report after visiting the Fishkill facility almost three years to the day before Harrell's death. It said it found many mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement and heard complaints about harassment and sexual and physical abuse, among other issues.
This year, reports surfaced this month that guards at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Clinton County abused inmates while seeking information about two prisoners who escaped June 6. The Department of Justice opened an investigation in May into inmate abuse at Attica Correctional Facility in Wyoming County, where three ex-officers pleaded guilty to beating inmate George Williams and leaving him with broken legs and ribs and a fractured shoulder in 2011.
That's the probe the correctional association wants expanded to include the whole system. "The torture, murders and cover-ups must end," the correctional association wrote in its statement. "Only a federal investigation of [the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision] can begin to accomplish this.”