My Memories of the New York Prison Where Inmates Say a Mentally-Ill Black Man Was Beaten to Death

Fishkill Correctional Facility is haunted by more than just ghosts.

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Aug 19 2015, 4:00am

An inmate looks out at the Hudson Valley at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in 2007. Photo via AP Photo/Mike Groll

JRock died in a Fishkill Correctional Facility staircase.

Fishkill, in Beacon, New York, sits next to the crumbling gothic ruins left behind by the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and in my time there inmates believed that the wrecked asylum held ghosts, remnants of the twisted people who had dwelt within it since it opened in 1892. Maybe JRock—who was 30 when he died, and had the "government name" of Samuel Harrell—has joined them. In any case, his story isn't over: On Tuesday, the New York Times published a long investigation into Harrell's death that suggests he died after being brutally beaten by correctional officers in April, and that guards have retaliated against prisoners who've dared to discuss what happened since. The whole affair is a testament to a culture of hands-on discipline in the state prison system, one I experienced myself.

If JRock's spirit remains on earth until the wrong that led to his demise is righted, it will probably linger in the staircase for some time.

Related: The Pains I've Endured in Prison Buses and Police Vans

Staircases are ominous at Fishkill; a month before my release from the place in February of last year, an old-timer named Kirsch, who was the first person to speak to me when I entered the state prison system in June 2004, died of a heart attack in a staircase. He used to dye his hair with typewriter ribbon, preventing him from showering if he wished to remain a brunette—or rather blue-nette. His body was not claimed by anyone and was interred in Fishkill's graveyard.

The narrow flights are dangerous places where you can slip and fall, but JRock's death, I suspect, was not caused by a loose step but by a lack of cameras. Electronic eyes watch the yards and the walkways, but not the stairwell. Indeed, the only truly thing haunting about Fishkill is the Beat Up Squad—what we prisoners called the group of guards who took it upon themselves to inflict informal corporal punishment upon us in the staircases.

I knew JRock from the medication line. Like many inmates with bipolar disorder, he had another world within his reach, one he could visit by simply not taking his pills. Many prisoners did this; the walkway was covered in spat-up tablets. The bipolar world was one of manic highs and depressive lows. The Times reports that JRock's mother died in November, and as far as I knew, she was his sole source of support—pretty much the only person who picked up the phone when he called (collect, of course).

Fishkill is a very easy place to get on "chemical handcuffs"; the compound was full of "droolers," men visibly incapacitated by haldol or lithium. There is an utterly inaccurate rumor identifying Fishkill as the shooting location of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest; JRock hadn't seen it, in any case. He was difficult, and had trouble most of his life thanks to his condition. We weren't friends—with five months left to go home, I steered clear of a guy like that.

The enormous line for meds I stood in every evening in Fishkill was a testament to it being one of the state's facilities that specializes in troubled prisoners. There is a huge wing devoted to mental health, with rubber rooms and pill-pushers, and two floors of the clinic serve as a hospice unit. That's where prisoners die of old age and the diseases that come with it. Many of the old-timers I met ten years back who guided me as a "newjack" wound up there. They rarely recognized me and took a couple months to die. The hospice cost a lot, and even held quadriplegics; there is a compassionate release procedure for releasing sick men to die at home, but I never witnessed it actually help someone get out. The hospice did not play much of a role in the compound's life beyond the steady stream of porters fired for bringing tobacco to the dying men pleading for it. But the "bug unit," as the mental health facility was called, cast a long shadow.

The Beat Up Squad, specializing in violence enhanced by delusions and paranoia, doesn't exactly discriminate.

Since almost all of the mentally-ill inmates lived among the general population—prisoners were often specifically transferred to Fishkill for treatment—the cops didn't know who was who and were wary of all of us. They had reason to be; I once witnessed an ill man catch a delusion and turn around to punch the man on line behind him in the face. He did it with all his strength and for no reason whatsoever. I was next on line, but the cops jumped on him and brutally restrained him. They had seen this before.

I spent two birthdays in Fishkill, the tenth and eleventh times I popped a can of ginger ale to celebrate in prison; five months after I turned 36, I bought a cup of coffee at a gas station to mark my release after 123 months incarcerated. This last stretch of time, spent at a medium-security facility as close to the city as you can get, should have been a cakewalk after the four maximum-security joints I did seven years inside and the three special housing units (SHUs) in which I served a combined year of solitary—a.k.a. box time. But I walked on eggshells. This was Fishkill, and Fishkill is haunted. The Beat Up Squad, specializing in violence enhanced by delusions and paranoia, doesn't exactly discriminate.

Every prison has its own culture, which disseminates from the top down. One prison I spent a relatively happy two years in had a superintendent who wore pinstripe gangster suits and loved to chat with the mobsters. The joint was old enough to have ovens that were meant to bake bread for the prisoners. These days a simulated Wonder Bread comes from a central depot, but when I was in that prison, the grand old ovens were used to make pizza. Each month, whichever wing of the prison was cleanest had a pizza party. When I turned 30, a combination of bending the rules and kind officers looking the other way let me have my own pizza party in the yard. I gave away 20 pies and ate a whole one myself. That was a prison that wasn't haunted. No one ever got beat up, and those deemed to be mentally ill went across the river to Fishkill.

Fishkill had no pizza parties, and it was easy to earn a beating. If the Squad was called in, you were looking at a trip to the hospital. The big men who function as a platoon are not just accustomed to taking down psychotics and schizophrenics, but also prisoners freaking out because of K2 overdoses, which prison officials have suggested is what possessed JRock that day. Upstate, synthetic cannabinoids are called "spike," after the New York City street name, spice. (Bloods hate Crips so much they refuse to use the letter c—they smoke bigarretes, shop at bomissary, and love themselves some spike.)

My sentence, served between 2004 and 2014, overlapped with the rise of K2. But Fishkill probably had the biggest plague of it, being the closest prison to the city and easiest to access by public transit. It might be the K2 capital of the Department of Corrections.

The drug's effects are not nearly as pleasant as those of marijuana, and it is very easy to have too much, at which point delusions can set in. In one week of 2014, when quite a bit of the stuff was smuggled in, I witnessed one man fight a wall with all his might and another demolish a whole weightlifting setup. The cops bring guys like this in, at their own risk, but then there is no way to give them box time. Urinalysis, the DOC's way of drug testing, can pick up THC, cocaine, opiates, and Buprenorphine. The latest addition is for catching suboxone users, but there is no test for K2—or at least there wasn't in my day. Even when someone is caught with it, they used to get around the trouble by claiming it's herbal tea. My friend's daughter just told me she visited her old man but was unable to bring him tea—which she said has been banned.

The officers named in the New York Times investigation are familiar to anyone who has resided in Fishkill for more than a day or so. If ever it was haunted, it was by the reputation of Thomas Dickenson, whom ten individual prisoners separately suggested was behind JRock's death. When I was first warned about him, I already had a decade in and asked how bad he could be. The answer: pretty bad. He stared at every passing set of eyes, looking for a challenge. I avoided him as best I could and did not say a word when he took away my headphones, right when the Tanglewood concerts began.

JRock wasn't as disciplined, or not as committed to being on his best behavior. His mama died and he just wanted to go home, so he packed his bags and announced he was leaving—apparently a major sin in the eyes of the Squad. He was ready for the train, but instead he took the stairs. Whoever was haunting them at the time took JRock to the hospital instead.

We all know where he went from there.

Follow Daniel Genis on Twitter.

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