Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Beat Up Squad

Prison Guard "Beat Up Squad" Blamed in Inmate Death:

On the evening of April 21 in Building 21 at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, Samuel Harrell, an inmate with a history of erratic behavior linked to bipolar disorder, packed his bags and announced he was going home, though he still had several years left to serve on his drug sentence.

Not long after, he got into a confrontation with corrections officers, was thrown to the floor and was handcuffed. As many as 20 officers — including members of a group known around the prison as the Beat Up Squad — repeatedly kicked and punched Mr. Harrell, who is black, with some of them shouting racial slurs, according to more than a dozen inmate witnesses. “Like he was a trampoline, they were jumping on him,” said Edwin Pearson, an inmate who watched from a nearby bathroom.

Corrections officers called for an ambulance, but according to medical records, the officers mentioned nothing about a physical encounter. Rather, the records showed, they told the ambulance crew that Mr. Harrell probably had an overdose of K2, a synthetic marijuana.

He was taken to St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital and at 10:19 p.m. was pronounced dead.
In the four months since, state corrections officials have provided only the barest details about what happened at Fishkill, a medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City. Citing a continuing investigation by the State Police, officials for weeks had declined to comment on the inmates’ accounts of a beating.

An autopsy report by the Orange County medical examiner, obtained by The New York Times, concluded that Mr. Harrell, 30, had cuts and bruises to the head and extremities and had no illicit drugs in his system, only an antidepressant and tobacco. He died of cardiac arrhythmia, the autopsy report said, “following physical altercation with corrections officers.”

The manner of death: Homicide.
Which immediately led to mass arrests at the correctional facility, right? Wrong.
No officers have been disciplined in connection with the death, officials said. A classification of homicide is a medical term that indicates the death occurred at the hands of other people, but it does not necessarily mean a crime was committed.
Kind of like when we execute someone. The official death certificate is always listed as homicide, even though, y'know, it doesn't really count.

So back to the Clown Squad.
Most of the inmates could identify the officers by last names only, which they spelled in a variety of ways in their affidavits. In a database of New York State employees,, there are several Fishkill officers who appeared to match the guards most often named by the inmates as being directly involved in the encounter. They are Thomas Dickenson (named by 10 of the inmates), John Yager (10), Officer Michels (nine), Bryan Eull (five) and a white woman they knew only as “Ms. B” (four).

They also identified the ranking officer at the scene as Sgt. Joseph Guarino. Reached by telephone, Sergeant Guarino confirmed he was present that night but said he could not comment.

Neither the corrections department nor the union would confirm the names of the officers. Reached by phone, several of the officers declined to comment. Others did not respond to voice mail messages, emails or messages sent through Facebook.

Through the years, Sergeant Guarino, 60, has been sued several times by inmates accusing him of brutality. One case was settled by the state in 2012 for $60,000 and another in 2011 for $65,000. In a 2011 deposition, he said inmates typically filed about 30 grievances against him a year and referred to him by the nickname Sergeant Searchalot.
LOL. Sounds to me like Sgt. "Searchalot" should have been put out to pasture a long time ago. How this clown keeps his job with an "average of 30 grievances" filed against him each year boggles the mind.

But this seems to be a problem generally in several New York prisons, not just Fishkill. Following the escape of two maximum security inmates from the Clinton facility back in June, a similar "Beat Up Squad" went on a retributive rampage against inmates suspected of aiding and abetting the escape.
Night had fallen at the Clinton Correctional Facility in far northern New York when the prison guards came for Patrick Alexander. They handcuffed him and took him into a broom closet for questioning. Then, Mr. Alexander said in an interview last week, the beatings began.

As the three guards, who wore no name badges, punched him and slammed his head against the wall, he said they shouted questions: “Where are they going? What did you hear? How much are they paying you to keep your mouth shut?” One of the guards put a plastic bag over his head, Mr. Alexander said, and threatened to waterboard him.

Hours earlier, Richard W. Matt and David Sweat had made their daring escape from the unit — called the “honor block” — where they were housed. Now it appeared that Mr. Alexander, a fellow convicted murderer who lived in an adjoining cell, was being made to suffer the consequences.
For days after the June prison break, corrections officers carried out what seemed like a campaign of retribution against dozens of Clinton inmates, particularly those on the honor block, an investigation by The New York Times found. In letters reviewed by The Times, as well as prison interviews, inmates described a strikingly similar catalog of abuses, including being beaten while handcuffed, choked and slammed against cell bars and walls.
Part of the problem too with corrections is that the officer's unions often go to great lengths to downplay or otherwise impede investigations into their officers. Correctional unions have done a lot of good over the years, but one of the downsides is the "thin gray line" they promote among the members.  
James Miller, a spokesman for the corrections officers’ union, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, said in an email last month that Mr. Harrell was “acting violently and appeared delusional as a result of apparently ingesting drugs.” While trying to subdue him, one guard had several ribs broken, Mr. Miller said.

Officials have described abuse of K2 by inmates as a problem throughout the state prison system.

On Monday, Mr. Miller wrote in an email that the union was “reviewing all the facts before rushing to judgment.”

“Rather than simply relying on allegations made by a handful of violent convicted felons,” he wrote, “we will continue to work with our partners in law enforcement to ensure a resolution to this tragic incident.”
One assumes the "handful of violent convicted felons" refers to the inmates. And while I still fundamentally support unions and the great work they have done to professionalize correctional work, it is incidents like this where they often make things worse.

But this his is not just a problem in New York prisons, or prisons where unions are strong. This is a problem in state prisons throughout the country.  

Because as with the militarization of policing that has been well-documented over the years, the same "crack skulls" mentality has transformed correctional officer work too (the same jack boots, body armor and CERT teams are everywhere). 

Worse, since so many of the inmates these guards are watching are mentally ill (and belong anywhere other than a prison) their mental illness is often treated as malingering or manipulative behavior, and thus the extreme reactions.

One hopes the re-thinking going on in law enforcement today, from the Black Lives Matter movement to anti-militarization efforts, eventually works its way to corrections. Frankly, the same body cameras we are seeing in police departments should be worn by correctional officers. 

Because unlike the general public, where smartphones and video cameras are ubiquitous, and abusive situations can be captured and released immediately, no such technology pervades the deep bowels of a prison. And where no one can see, and no one cares, the depravity can be at its worst.
Mr. Harrell was then thrown or dragged down a staircase, according to the inmates’ accounts. One inmate reported seeing him lying on the landing, “bent in an impossible position.”

“His eyes were open,” the inmate wrote, “but they weren’t looking at anything.”

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