Inmate’s death prompts calls for prosecution, reform
By Jeff Simms
Disenchanted with what they say is an aggressive and unforgiving culture at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, a group of residents have united to expand the dialogue about prison violence.
Beacon Prison Action organized a candlelight vigil outside the men’s medium-security prison on Oct. 21, six months after the death on April. 21 of inmate Samuel Harrell, 30, following a violent confrontation with officers.
A lengthy investigation of Harrell’s death by The New York Times, published on Aug. 18 and online, cited 19 inmates who said as many as 20 officers repeatedly kicked and punched Harrell, handcuffed him and dragged him down a flight of stairs. Prisoners claimed some guards shouted racial slurs at Harrell, who was black. A New York State Police investigation is underway.
The Times report led Jeff Golden, who lives less than two miles from the prison, to give more thought to what goes on behind its walls.
“If this had been just a minor report of abuse, or maybe [had happened] at another prison, perhaps I might not have been as compelled,” said Golden, 45, one of Beacon Prison Action’s organizers. “But this was extraordinary.”
Paul Mersfelder, who recently moved to Beacon after completing his degree in social work at Boston University, said he was struck by “the horror of it, and that justice wasn’t being served — it became a perfect opportunity to jump in and ask, ‘What can we do now?’”
A statement on the group’s website at beaconprisonproject.org says that Beacon Prison Action joined with the Hudson Valley Black Lives Matter Coalition in calling for the “immediate suspension of the corrections officers implicated in the murder of Samuel Harrell” and “aggressive prosecution” of their commanding officers by the Dutchess County and federal district attorney’s offices.
News reports, the statement says, “make it clear that physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of inmates by corrections officers is pervasive at our local facilities and throughout the state. Further, these reports show that there is almost zero accountability for COs and prison officials in these cases. Many of us in Beacon, Fishkill and neighboring towns had no idea these kinds of abuses were going on right here in the heart of our community.”
Although the officers on duty at the Beacon prison told an ambulance crew that Harrell had overdosed on K2, a synthetic marijuana, the Orange County medical examiner (Harrell was pronounced dead at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital) classified the death as a homicide. The term means a person’s death was caused by another but not necessarily that a crime was committed. An autopsy found no illicit drugs in Harrell’s body.
Harrell’s widow, who lives in Kingston, has filed a federal lawsuit against the state, prison officials and the correction officers’ union; the suit maintains that guards covered up how her husband died. (The Times obtained the prisoner statements from the family’s legal team.)
The New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, which represents the guards at Fishkill, said in an emailed statement that “to this date no officer has been suspended or disciplined in this incident. Unfortunately in society today, people tend to form opinions without having all of the facts. We will not rush to judgment and continue on a pragmatic course of action until the investigation is complete.”
Members of Beacon Prison Action marched in the annual Spirit of Beacon parade in September, distributing 1,000 flyers with details about Harrell’s death. The candlelight vigil was attended by nearly 100 people, including Harrell’s wife and sister.
Mersfelder said events like the vigil are designed to increase awareness among city residents who may not be tuned in to what’s happening at the prison. “Hopefully we can tap into folks from Beacon who may be watching from the sidelines and draw them in and get them invested,” he said.
Although the group’s members heard from some critics as they handed out flyers during the parade, Golden said its goal isn’t to incite controversy but to create a dialogue before there is another death by violence at the prison. “I realized that in many ways this was not a unique incident,” he said. “Then you ask yourself: What would have to happen in our community for us to rise up and say no, regardless of the institution?”
Golden said he was encouraged by the appointment on Aug. 25 of Robert Cunningham as superintendent of the Fishkill Correctional Facility, which is located northeast of the city center, between Fishkill Avenue and I-84. Cunningham, who had held the same position at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility since 2010, was told by the state Department of Corrections to focus specifically on safety in Building 21, where Harrell died, and the adjacent 21A. His review was to include discussions with the officers’ union and the Inmate Liaison Committee.
“We hope he’s someone we can work with,” such as in pursuing grants for officer training, Golden said. “We’re very eager to approach the new superintendent to see what kind of common ground there could be.”
He added, “There are people in our community who are entering this institution [as guards] for their careers, and I truly believe we can make the environment there more humane—for the people who are incarcerated and [those] who work there.”