We at Beacon Prison Action seek to support some of the critical campaigns already underway in New York State and nationwide, but we are particularly focused on our local prison, the Fishkill Correctional Facility. This is a critical moment for the Fishkill prison. There is a new superintendent, and he has been specifically tasked with looking onto all concerns about safety, especially in the building where Sam Harrell was murdered. There is also a tremendous amount of energy in the surrounding communities in support of change at the prison, sparked by Sam’s murder and everything we have since learned about how pervasive violence and the abuse of solitary confinement is at the prison.
I. Accountability for Corrections Officers
We are very glad US Attorney Preet Bharara has taken responsibility for investigating Sam’s murder (in partnership with Dutchess County DA Grady). Mr. Bharara has an impressive track record of successfully prosecuting important cases. We are hoping he will announce his decision about proceeding with criminal charges in Sam’s case very soon.
We are asking Governor Cuomo and Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Acting Commissioner Annucci to immediately place the corrections officers allegedly involved in Sam’s death on administrative duty pending a decision by Mr. Bharara. It is standard procedure whenever use of force by a police officer results in death, the officer is placed on administrative duty pending completion of an investigation. It should be standard for COs as well, both to protect the public trust, to limit the liability of the state, and to protect against any further inappropriate use of force by officers in instances where they are found to have acted inappropriately.
The terms of Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order 147, which assigns a special prosecutor any time a police officer causes the death of an unarmed civilian, should be expanded to apply to corrections officers as well. Our understanding is that the Governor included this provision in his 2015/16 budget, but it was not included in the final approved budget. Again, in Sam’s case we are delighted that US Attorney Bharara is overseeing the investigation, but independent investigations and prosecution need to be standard procedure in all cases where a CO is involved in the death of an inmate, just as is the case with police officers.
II. Body Cameras at Fishkill
We are asking Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Annucci to implement a pilot body camera program at Fishkill prison. There seems to be support in the Governor’s office and the legislature for such a program. Governor Cuomo’s 2015/16 budget, as well as the final budget that was adopted, include funding for such a program. The Superintendent of the Fishkill prison has also indicated he would welcome such a program.
Body cameras are not a silver bullet for preventing violence, but they have been found to be very effective at reducing it. In Rialto, CA, the use of body cameras by police officers resulted in a 90% decrease in complaints against officers and the use of force fell 60%. Mesa, AZ, saw a 40% reduction in complaints and 75% reduction in use of force, and San Diego, CA, saw a 40% drop in complaints and a 50% reduction in use of force.
Body cameras are good for both incarcerated people and officers who are acting with integrity. One study found that “in cases where video evidence was available, the officer was exonerated 93% of the time; in 5% of the cases the complaint was sustained.” And “at least 50 percent of the time, complaining citizens withdrew their complaint when they were made aware of the” video.
We are appealing to the Governor’s office and Commissioner Annucci to support a meaningful pilot at Fishkill that includes the following elements:
- The body camera program should include all corrections officers who have contact with incarcerated people, or at a minimum all such COs in the 3-11pm shift (the one when Sam was killed).
- The cameras should be on at all times COs may potentially interact with an incarcerated person.
- COs should complete initial incident reports and responses to grievances before viewing related video.
- All video should be retained for at least 2 months. Video related to an incident reported by a CO or to a grievance filed by an inmate should be retained for at least 3 years. Video related to a death or death investigation should be retained for at least 99 years.
III. Reductions in the Use of Solitary Confinement at Fishkill
We are calling on Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Annucci to significantly reduce the use of the “Solitary Holding Units” at Fishkill. This could include:
- Limiting sentences in the SHU to 15 days for serious offenses and much less for moderate offenses or threats;
- Allowing greater access to out-of-cell programs for people in the SHU;
- Giving them more out-of-cell time each day;
- And excluding people 21 and younger and people with any mental illness from time in the SHU.
IV. Training for COs
We are asking Governor Cuomo and DOCCS Acting Commissioner Annucci to provide the necessary funding for all Fishkill COs to participate in a “Crisis Intervention Team” training. Fishkill leadership has indicated they would welcome additional training.
There is a series of CIT trainings offered in Poughkeepsie, just 30 minutes from the Fishkill prison. The training is 40 hours, and is designed to help officers “acquire specialized skills when responding to persons with mental illness.” It helps them in identifying mental health issues, provides them with de-escalation techniques and effective communication skills, suicide prevention, and more. The training has been praised by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Dutchess County officials, the Poughkeepsie City Police, and the NY State Police.
- We stand with the Correctional Association in demanding a thorough investigation of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) by the US Department of Justice.
- We stand with the dozens of organizations throughout the state supporting the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, and other legislation pending in the state that would curtail the use of solitary confinement.
As we evolve, we look forward to supporting other groups in a range of critical efforts to address prison injustices, especially as they relate to our local prison.