A “beat-up squad” of up to 20 prison guards killed Samuel Harrell on April 21 at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y., charge his family and community supporters. They are seeking justice for this 30-year-old African-American prisoner.
No charges have yet been filed against any officers involved in this atrocity. No guard has even been suspended or put on leave. The “beat-up squad” members are still on the job.
Members of “Hudson Valley Black Lives Matter,” along with other area residents, marched with Harrell’s relatives to the office of Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., on Aug. 27 to demand the arrest, indictment and conviction of those responsible for Harrell’s death.
Demonstrators held a banner saying “#Justice for Samuel Harrell” and blocked traffic. Some held signs naming DA Grady and guards implicated in the assault. A rally was held across from Grady’s office. Some protesters circled the building while others blocked the entrance.
Diane Harrell, the slain prisoner’s spouse, said: “Sam was murdered by a group of men who used their positions of power in the prison to act out their rage. I cannot bear the thought of my husband’s last few minutes of life. I know he felt excruciating pain. I can promise that we will not rest until there is justice for Sam.”
And Margaret Kwateng of the Hudson Valley BLM, which organized the demonstration, stressed, “What is left to investigate? … If Bill Grady doesn’t press homicide charges, he will not only be condoning the continued terrorizing of current inmates at the hands of a known gang of violent corrections officers, but condoning racist violence in prisons in general.” (Huffington Post, Aug. 27)
Natajah Roberts of “Citizen Action New York” said: “Many inmates who saw [Harrell’s killing] have been threatened … put in solitary and … told not to say anything about what they saw. We are here to demand justice and specifically to demand that the DA file homicide charges.” (Radio station WAMC, Aug. 28)
After the demonstration, Grady announced that his office will investigate Harrell’s death together with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Death ruled a ‘homicide’
Harrell’s relatives say that his bipolar mental illness contributed to his confusion on April 21, when he mistakenly expected his family to pick him up to take him home. As he got ready to leave, guards attacked him. They claimed he had smoked synthetic marijuana and was behaving erratically.
However, the Orange County medical examiner found cuts and bruises on Harnell’s body — and no illegal drugs in his system. His death was ruled a “homicide.” State prison officials have released little information about the fatal assault.
The New York Times extensively investigated the massive attack on Harrell, reporting on Aug. 18 that he “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 … with some of them shouting racial slurs, according to more than a dozen inmate witnesses.”
Edwin Pearson said, “Like he was a trampoline, they were jumping on him.” Inmates saw Harrell “thrown or dragged down a staircase.” One prisoner saw him lying on the landing, “bent in an impossible position.”
Attorneys for Harrell’s family have received 19 affidavits and letters from inmate eyewitnesses. None state that Harrell fought back or even talked to his assailants. They name nine officers who participated in the attack and the ranking officer on duty at the time — Sgt. Joseph Guarino — who has often been sued for brutality.
Inmates who saw the horrific beating have been put into solitary confinement and threatened with violence after speaking to Harrell’s lawyers, relatives or journalists.
‘Pervasive culture of abuse’
The blog of the Correctional Association of New York, a prisoner-advocacy group, cites its 2013 report documenting “harassment and provocation” in the building in which Harrell was killed. On Aug. 18, the website condemned “the pervasive culture of violence and abuse perpetrated by Department of Correction and Community Supervision and the attempted cover-up — this time at Fishkill. The homicide of 30-year-old Samuel Harrell on April 21 by Fishkill prison guards is a reminder that the entire prison system is out of control and irreparably broken.”
Other revelations about brutality in New York state prisons have recently come to light. In June, when two prisoners escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., other inmates were put into solitary confinement and tortured by prison guards trying to extract information.
These horrific incidents once again expose the intrinsically racist, oppressive and brutal system of mass incarceration. In demanding justice for Samuel Harrell and all victims of racist police violence, it is essential to call for the uprooting of the entire prison system. It is a cornerstone of the capitalist state, whose mission is to use force and violence to maintain capitalist exploitation of the working class.