A lengthy New York Times investigation has revealed alleged systematic abuse of inmates by corrections officers at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York, and has presented a clearer picture of the sequence of events that led to inmate Samuel Harrell's death earlier this year.
According to 19 affidavits and letters written by inmates, the confrontation between Harrell and corrections officers in April came after the inmate decided to leave the prison in Beacon, New York. Harrell, a black man who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had a history of "erratic" behavioral tendencies, had packed his bags and resolved to leave the detention facility — even though he had a minimum of five years left to serve on his eight-year sentence for criminal sale of a controlled substance.
Corrections officers confronted Harrell, throwing him on the ground and handcuffing him. Witnesses said about 20 officers repeatedly kicked and punched him. Edwin Pearson, an inmate at Fishkill who watched from a nearby bathroom, recalled that "[Harrell] was a trampoline, they were jumping on him," according to the Times. Harrell was then dragged down the staircase, where witnesses said they saw him lying on the landing, his body twisted.
In another affidavit, an inmate reportedly wrote that "his eyes were open, but they weren't looking at anything."
The Timesnotes that many of the inmates who provided affidavits said they would only do so on the condition that their identities be protected, as they fear retaliation from corrections officers. Only three inmates agreed to go public. According to the Harrell family's attorney Luna Droubi, nine inmates who witnessed the incident were subsequently placed in solitary confinement and threatened by corrections officers.
Inmates said that there are no surveillance cameras in the area where the incident took place. Reports at the time of Harrell's death quoted a spokesman for the corrections officers' union that said Harrell was acting violently, and that two corrections officers were badly injured in the aftermath.
The autopsy report obtained by the Times concluded that Harrell, 30, died of cardiac arrhythmia "following physical altercation with corrections officers." The report also states that Harrell had cuts and bruises on his head and extremities, and that he had no illicit drugs in his system -— contrary to the report given by corrections officers to the ambulance crew, which suggested Harrell had likely overdosed on the synthetic psychoactive marijuana known as "K2." Harrell's death was ultimately ruled a homicide.
New York State Police, who are conducting the investigation into the incident, will reportedly turn over the evidence to the Dutchess County district attorney's office sometime "in the very near future."
Though some of the inmates were able to identify the corrections officers involved in the confrontation, their names are yet to be verified.
The Times reported that inmate David Martinez described "a group of rogue officers" in the complex who would "go around beating up people."
Building 21 of Fishkill, where Harrell was incarcerated, has long been riddled with reports of violence and abuse. In 2012, The New York Correctional Association issued a damning report about the facility's treatment of people with mental illness.
"We were also troubled to find a staff culture that considered people who attempted to harm themselves as "malingerers" rather than patients in crisis in need of treatment," the report states. The report also cities "harassment, threats, retaliation… sexual and other abuse, including on mental health units" as recurrent issues.
Fishkill is no outlier when it comes to allegations of abuse in New York state detention facilities. In a recent investigation into the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York —where two convicted murderers escaped earlier this year — the Times reported that inmates were beaten and choked with plastic bags by corrections officers in an effort to extrapolate information regarding the escapees.
Another months-long investigation into conditions at Rikers Island documented 129 cases in 2013 where inmates were beaten so badly by corrections officers that they required emergency treatment. Seventy-seven percent of those 129 inmates were reportedly diagnosed with a mental health condition.