18 Aug 2015

Death of inmate ruled homicide: "Over a dozen inmate witnesses said that as many as 20 officers repeatedly kicked and punched him."

On the evening of April 21 in Building 21 at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, Samuel Harrell, an inmate with a history of erratic behavior linked to bipolar disorder, packed his bags and announced he was going home, though he still had several years left to serve on his drug sentence.
Not long after, he got into a confrontation with corrections officers, 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, who is black, with some of them shouting racial slurs, according to more than a dozen inmate witnesses. “Like he was a trampoline, they were jumping on him,” said Edwin Pearson, an inmate who watched from a nearby bathroom.
Mr. Harrell was then thrown or dragged down a staircase, according to the inmates’ accounts. One inmate reported seeing him lying on the landing, “bent in an impossible position.”
“His eyes were open,” the inmate wrote, “but they weren’t looking at anything.” 
Corrections officers called for an ambulance, but according to medical records, the officers mentioned nothing about a physical encounter. Rather, the records showed, they told the ambulance crew that Mr. Harrell probably had an overdose of K2, a synthetic marijuana.
He was taken to St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital and at 10:19 p.m. was pronounced dead.
In the four months since, state corrections officials have provided only the barest details about what happened at Fishkill, a medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City. Citing a continuing investigation by the State Police, officials for weeks had declined to comment on the inmates’ accounts of a beating.
An autopsy report by the Orange County medical examiner, obtained by The New York Times, concluded that Mr. Harrell, 30, had cuts and bruises to the head and extremities and had no illicit drugs in his system, only an antidepressant and tobacco. He died of cardiac arrhythmia, the autopsy report said, “following physical altercation with corrections officers.”
The manner of death: Homicide.
Previous Reports of Violence
No officers have been disciplined in connection with the death, officials said. A classification of homicide is a medical term that indicates the death occurred at the hands of other people, but it does not necessarily mean a crime was committed.
Inmate witnesses at Fishkill say they are the ones who have been punished. Several described being put into solitary confinement and threatened with violence after speaking with Mr. Harrell’s family, their lawyers and with news reporters.
The Times documented similar allegations of abuse from inmates at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., where in June two convicted murderers escaped, resulting in a three-week manhunt. There, inmates described being beaten and choked with plastic bags by corrections officers seeking information about the escapees. Many were then thrown into solitary confinement.
The prison building where Mr. Harrell died has long been singled out as a violent place. In 2013, the Correctional Association of New York, a 171-year-old inmate advocacy group with a legislative mandate to inspect New York State prisons, published a report documenting “harassment and provocation” by officers working in Building 21 from 3 to 11 p.m. This was the same time frame when Mr. Harrell died. The association, which foundsimilar problems in 2005, briefed officials with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in fall 2013, including the acting commissioner, Anthony Annucci, as well as Fishkill’s superintendent, William J. Connolly, who resigned this month.
Even so, inmates said, the problems have persisted. Five weeks before Mr. Harrell’s death, David Martinez, an inmate in Building 21 who was serving time for attempted murder, among other charges, filed a grievance saying he was being assaulted and harassed by officers, and asking that the officers on that shift “be split up.” In a subsequent letter, he described them as “a group of rogue officers” who “go around beating up people.”
In July, another inmate, Rickey Rodriguez, said that officers beat him so severely that he lost his two front teeth and had to be hospitalized. Interviewed a little more than a week after he was released from prison, Mr. Rodriguez, who was serving time for attempted murder, was still covered with cuts and bruises, and the white of his right eye was stained red with blood. “They go out of their way to pick and choose to beat on guys,” he said.
The State Police plan to turn over the evidence gathered to the Dutchess County district attorney’s office “in the very near future,” said Beau Duffy, an agency spokesman. The corrections department said it was cooperating with the State Police.  
“Anyone found to have engaged in any misconduct or in any legal violations will be disciplined and prosecuted,” the department said in a statement.
The Times pieced together the events leading to Mr. Harrell’s death from 19 affidavits and letters written by inmates and obtained through the law firm Beldock Levine & Hoffman, which is representing Mr. Harrell’s family. Most of the inmates shared their affidavits on the condition that their names not be used, because they said they feared retribution from corrections officers. Three agreed to be interviewed with their names made public.
According to Luna Droubi, a lawyer at the firm, at least nine of the inmates who saw what happened had been placed at some point in solitary confinement. She said that the firm would soon file a lawsuit in connection with the death, and that there was a need for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate.
The inmates witnessed the encounter from several vantage points, including a day room and bathroom just a few feet away. Two described being at the bottom of the staircase and seeing Mr. Harrell come falling down.
Inmate witnesses are typically viewed with skepticism by investigators, but the accounts from Fishkill are strikingly consistent. Inmates there are serving sentences for felonies, such as drug crimes and murder, but have earned the right to take part in programs like work release.
Mental Illness
No one could say for sure what set off the confrontation with Mr. Harrell. There were no surveillance cameras in that area, according to inmates, and corrections officials acknowledged that there are only a few for the entire prison.
James Miller, a spokesman for the corrections officers’ union, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, said in an email last month that Mr. Harrell was “acting violently and appeared delusional as a result of apparently ingesting drugs.” While trying to subdue him, one guard had several ribs broken, Mr. Miller said.
Officials have described abuse of K2 by inmates as a problem throughout the state prison system.
On Monday, Mr. Miller wrote in an email that the union was “reviewing all the facts before rushing to judgment.”
“Rather than simply relying on allegations made by a handful of violent convicted felons,” he wrote, “we will continue to work with our partners in law enforcement to ensure a resolution to this tragic incident.”
Mr. Harrell had served several stints in prison for drug crimes starting in 2002. He had five disciplinary infractions while incarcerated, including one days before his death for possessing contraband, according to prison records. None involved violence.
Inmates and family members say that any erratic behavior more likely stemmed from his mental illness. In the weeks before his death, they said, he had been depressed. In 2010 he learned he had bipolar disorder and was hospitalized, according to medical records. His wife, Diane Harrell, said that when he was not taking his medication, he would go through the house turning over family photographs for fear they were staring at him. He also believed the television was talking to him, she said.
Read More:http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/19/nyregion/fishkill-prison-inmate-died-after-fight-with-officers-records-show.html


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