Candlelight Vigil Opening Statement

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By Jeff Golden

Hello.  My name is Jeff Golden, I live here in Beacon, and I’m one of many local residents who have organized in response to what happened to Sam Harrell at the prison here and helped to organize this vigil.  I want to take a few minutes to help orient us all before we walk to the vigil site.

It’s a sacred space we’re going to be entering.  As we step forward into that space, we honor the Harrell family and the life of Sam Harrell.  We place ourselves on the very ground where Sam’s life was taken 6 months ago tonight.  And we also bring ourselves closer to a good many people for whom this facility is their entire world, for years and decades on end.  Those roughly 1700 souls are up there right now, each of them unique and complex, with loves and pains, regrets and desires, family, friends, children, each with stories we can hardly imagine.  Each of them is fundamentally tied to the crime they were sentenced for, and yet each of them is so much more than that, so much more than just “inmates.”

As we open our minds and hearts to Sam’s humanity and the reality of what was done to him and to his family, let us open our minds and hearts to these other people and their families as well.  Because what was done to Sam was in too many ways not exceptional.  If it were totally unique, we might be asking ourselves how it’s possible that so many psychopaths coincidentally ended up on the same shift here and all went berserk the very same night.

Instead the question is how did as many as 20 corrections officers, people from our local community, become habituated to having so little respect for the people incarcerated here?  How did they become so habituated to violence against inmates that instead of trying to stop it, or even simply pulling away from it, they joined in?

In the past five years there have been 175 successful lawsuits in this state related to COs abusing incarcerated people.  A good number of them took place right up on this hill.  The Poughkeepsie Journal reports that these local cases often involved people who were already handcuffed and resulted in serious injuries like broken bones, loss of hearing, smashed teeth.  The ranking officer on the scene when Sam was beaten had already been sued several times for brutality.

These are the tiny fraction of cases that actually made it to court and had enough evidence to win or force a settlement.  The vast majority do not.

We in the local community who have organized under the name Beacon Prison Action add our voices to those of many people here tonight.  We join the Harrell family and the Hudson Valley Black Lives Matter Coalition in calling for immediate suspension and prosecution of the COs who killed Sam.  We join the Correctional Association, the independent organization that monitors prisons, which has called on the Department of Justice to conduct an investigation of the entire state prison system because it believes violence and corruption have become so pervasive statewide.  And we join the End the New Jim Crow Action Network in striving to end the era of mass incarceration in this country.

At the same time, we have a particular concern for this prison.  We believe that those of us who live in this local area have a particular responsibility and a particular power to address what is happening right here in our backyard, in this prison that we benefit from economically, where many in our community work.

More inmates spend time in solitary confinement at this prison than any other statewide.  And the median amount of time spent in solitary here in any one stretch is 5 months.  This prison ranks in the worst third statewide for sexual abuse of prisoners.  95% of inmates report intimidation and false charges by COs.

We believe that everyone incarcerated here is worthy of dignity, that everyone has the potential for redemption, for change.  We want to work with prison officials here and at the state level to put this prison out ahead of the prison reform movement sweeping the nation, to make it a model of a prison that, once transformed, can be transformational in the lives of incarcerated people.

In demanding accountability for COs before the law, we are demanding of these people nothing more than we expect from everyone in our society.  And in demanding a more humane prison environment, we are promoting the well-being and humanity of our neighbors and family members who work here as well as the people incarcerated here.

I’m heartened by how many people are here tonight, and how many came out from our local community, including several city council members and our county legislator.  Thank you everyone for coming together tonight to help affirm the humanity of Sam and his family, to affirm the humanity of the people up on that hill, and, in coming together here tonight, to affirm our own humanity.