Yesterday, state prison officials named a new superintendent to head Fishkill Correctional Facility in the Hudson Valley. This latest shake-up follows allegations reported in the New York Times this month that corrections officers at the prison murdered a mentally ill inmate. It comes as New York’s prison officials already face a rash of scandals and investigations, including probes at Clinton Dannemora prison here in the North Country.
Adirondack Bureau Chief Brian Mann has been following these developments and talked with Todd Moe.
Todd Moe: So, first, let’s kind of recap why we pay attention to these prison issues.
Brian Mann: Prisons are a big part of what we do here in the North Country. A lot of men and women from our region work in prisons here and they rotate down to work at other prisons throughout New York State. So this really unprecedented turmoil and controversy that we’ve seen the last few months is affecting their lives and the lives of the thousands of inmates housed in North Country prisons.
TM: A lot of that turmoil began making headlines in June after the inmate escape from Clinton Dannemora. David Sweat was back in a Plattsburgh court this week. That’s obviously been a huge story, but it seems like this has expanded beyond that one incident.
BM: It clearly has. The state prison system is facing a new level of scrutiny right now, a kind of close examination that I haven’t seen before in my nearly 20 years in the North Country. We’ve seen two prison superintendents now sidelined. We’ve seen the arrest of one corrections officer and a dozen other corrections staff placed on administrative leave. We’ve seen charges that guards used really extreme measures after the Dannemora escape that allegedly included beatings and threats of torture. Our sources have told us that this scrutiny has led to huge tension and uncertainty among officers.
TM: Okay, let’s talk about this latest report in the New York Times about the death of Samuel Harrell.
BM: The Times reported August 18 that Harrell, a mentally ill black inmate, died at Fishkill Correctional Facility in the spring after allegedly being beaten by as many as 20 different corrections officers. They also quoted sources who described that beating as part of a pattern of violence at Fishkill among officers. In a statement yesterday, state officials responded. They said they’ve named a new top official to run Fishkill Correctional, a veteran corrections administrator named Robert Cunningham. And they said that part of Cunningham’s assignment is to review all “safety concerns” at the prison.
TM: There’s also another incident at Bare Hill Correctional Facility near Malone that’s drawing scrutiny. Tell us about that.
BM: This incident was first reported by a prison reporting group called the Marshall Project and the Albany Times Union. In February of 2013, corrections officers forced a group of inmates to place their bare hands for an extended period of time on a metal fence outdoors. This again is in February. According to legal documents and internal documents acquired by the Marshall project, as many as ten men suffered frostbite, in some cases severe. That case prompted a scathing editorial this week in the Albany Times Union that called for the U.S. Justice Department to probe New York’s prisons.
TM: Brian, you said there’s a lot of tension around these investigations and scrutiny among corrections officers. What are they saying about this?
BM: Right, prison work is tough duty even when things are stable and locked down and this summer has been anything but that. The basic message from NYSCOPBA, the corrections officers union, has been that people should wait for official investigations to wrap up before pointing fingers or talking about wrong-doing. Speaking with the Poughkeepsie Journal newspaper, NYSCOPBA’s spokesman Jim Miller pointed out that none of the corrections officers at Fishkill Correctional Facility have been disciplined or placed on leave. “There is no indication at this time there will be any criminal charges,” Miller told the newspaper. He added, “No one has been found at fault.”