Standing up to a prison bully got me two weeks of solitary confinement

Prison inmates stand in line.
Prison inmates stand in line.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If more than 60 inmate reports of beatings by prison staffers in Dannemora aren’t enough to convince you that New York prisons need sweeping reform, then the harrowing story of Samuel Harrell’s death should do it.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Harrell’s April 21, 2015 death at the hands of up to 20 prison guards in Fishkill Correctional Facility had finally been ruled a homicide. The Times noted that nine of the inmates who originally had given eyewitness accounts of Harrell’s death had been placed in solitary confinement. In Dannemora’s Clinton Correctional Institution, a similar cover-up seems to have taken place: In the aftermath of David Sweat and Richard Matt’s escape in June, 60-plus fellow inmates claim that they were also abused and threatened in order to prevent allegations of guard and staffer misconduct.

I’m not surprised. Even though multiple accounts and consistent stories usually strengthen the likelihood of a story being true, in prison the number and consistency of reports from inmates like those at Dannemora and the Fishkill can actually be used to allege a prisoner-lead conspiracy.

My own lesson in inmate credibility came a few years ago, when I was the target of one guard’s bullying campaign during my time at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut. Many women reported incidents of the guard’s misconduct toward me, but when I asked a corrections captain if authorities were going to step in, I was told: “It’s all of your words against his.” Even with the odds of 16 to one, my story was deemed less reliable.

Inmates’ lack of credibility—and the unassailable credibility of corrections staff—is a big reason why prisoners are so easily and so often victimized in correctional systems across the country. One prosecutor in Alabama has publicly conceded that prosecuting crimes against inmates is more difficult because juries won’t believe them, reported AL.com in April. This might also be why sexual abuse was allowed to continue, unchecked, in the state’s only women’s prison for nearly 20 years.

And just last month in Louisiana, a judge refused to believe an inmate’s testimony of being beaten by a corrections official, reported the Advocate, even though the prosecutor presented video evidence of the attack.

Studies show it, and the people who know them say it: many inmates are screwed-up, troubled people. That’s one of the reasons why their credibility is so low in the first place. Many are jailed for fraud, like I was. Many manipulate others to get what they need. Many lie to get people into trouble and get themselves out of it. All are bored, and some are mentally ill. Had Harrell survived his pummeling to report it, his diagnosis of bipolar disorder would have undercut the credibility of his report.

But the mental and psychological problems that permeate our country’s correctional facilities also make widespread prisoner cover-ups so unlikely. Either there is a Judas in the population who will betray the effort and report everyone, or someone will get the story confused.

When three of my fellow inmates at York conspired to lie about a sexual encounter with a guard, the plot collapsed quickly. The truth is that inmates who struggle with character fitness will be unable to stay true to the lie, even if they’re the ones who started it. Which all goes to show that if the reports of violence and abuse by New York Department of Corrections employees were one big, contrived fib, it would have imploded already.

Plus, inmates have no incentive to make accusations. With all the disciplinary tools at their disposal, prison staff may coerce recantations from inmates before they even have a chance to make a report. Even model prisoners who report misconduct can be sentenced to solitary confinement for the remainder of their sentence under a non-disciplinary, administrative detention status colloquially called “pending investigation.”

After taking a stand against my own bully, I spent 13 days in solitary—a dank, quasi-underground cell containing a toilet-sink combo, a bed and nothing else. A non-disciplinary status inmate—one who isn’t even accused of wrongdoing—lives in the same conditions as an inmate who is guilty of attacking a guard or smuggling drugs into the facility.

According to the United Nations, more than 15 days in solitary is tantamount to torture.

Any outside benefits, say, in the form of money damages from a civil suit, are limited as well when the accuser is behind bars. According to the largest survey of correctional litigation—a survey of 27 state prison systems and 44 large jails conducted by University of Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger—inmates gained little through litigation, that is if they were able to scale the hurdles erected by the Prison Litigation Reform Act in the first place. In most cases, the only real upside to reporting these events is stopping the abuse.

There is no exact count of the number of non-lethal, non-sexual, physical assaults in America’s prisons, probably because there is no law mandating their documentation in the way that the Prison Rape Elimination Act requires explicit documentation of allegations of sexual assaults behind bars. However, in 2005 alone, 16,000 reports of prison staff misconduct were made to the Office of the Inspector General. That number includes all types of misconduct including importing contraband, sexual assault and physical assault.

We need to believe the inmate reports of abuse that are surfacing now. And then we need to put a final stop to it.

Now that staff members’ involvement in Matt and Sweat’s escape and the ensuing abuse heaped on inmates in an attempt to cover up that misconduct has been followed by other recent reports, it is clear that the New York corrections system needs a lasting overhaul, one that will provide the humane environment guaranteed to all inmates by the US Constitution.