The brutal incident that led to indictments last week of three former New York state correction officers is only the latest case to suggest that abuse in state prisons has reached a crisis level.
The federal grand jury indictment alleges that, in 2013, correction officers at a state prison in Dutchess County viciously beat a prisoner from Coxsackie Correctional Facility. In an effort to conceal their crime, the officers injured one of themselves with a club to support their lie that the inmate had instigated the altercation, the indictment said. The inmate, Kevin Moore, was being held overnight, en route to testify at a hearing the next day. A repeat felon serving up to 20 years for burglary, he never made it to the hearing.
The officers “brutally beat (Moore) for an extended period of time with fists, boots and batons, causing many life-threatening injuries,” the indictment charges. He was left bleeding on the floor for hours and was eventually hospitalized for three weeks.
The Times Union and The New York Times have reported extensively on this and similar cases, including the situation at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, where two convicted murderers pulled off a stunning escape last summer. The case illustrates the breakdown in the discipline of staff that contributed to the successful break. Reports of inmates beaten during the investigation into the escape evoke an image of a third world prison or the supposedly less-enlightened prisons of our own past.
Numerous other cases across the system, including the 2015 beating death of a mentally ill inmate by a group of officers known as the “Beat Up Squad,” have been documented. The state seems unable to respond.
A major problem is the difficulty in firing corrupt or otherwise unfit correction officers. The disciplinary process under the contract with the powerful correction officers union requires most actions be arbitrated. Both sides must agree on the arbitrator, who knows from experience he won’t be called again to serve in this lucrative position if the findings result in too harsh a punishment, such as firing. Too often, to protect these gigs, arbitrators order only a suspension. So the abusive guard is soon back on the job for which he or she is unsuited.
Over time this fosters a perverse culture in which the rights of prisoners are ignored and correction officers get away with horrific treatment of inmates. The result is an environment not unlike that at Abu Ghraib, where revelations of prisoner abuses by U.S. servicemen, under the guise of “enhanced interrogation,” severely undermined our war efforts in Iraq.
When the rights of prisoners are ignored and they are subjected to such abuse, the most likely result is that they become neurotic, resentful, angry, and even more prone to violence than when they committed the crimes that put them there in the first place.
It’s foolhardy to think this passes for discipline, and it endangers us all to call it rehabilitation.
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