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(Photo credit: The Poughkeepsie Journal)

Today, the Albany Times-Union published an op-ed by Wesley Caines, BDS’ Reentry Specialist, calling for an end to the abuse and killings of prisoners in New York State. The piece is timed to coincide with a hearing held by the NYS Assembly’s Correction Committee on oversight of the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and includes specific recommendations for legislators.

In the op-ed, Mr. Caines highlights the case of Samuel Harrell, who was allegedly brutally killed by the infamous “Beat Up Squad” in Fishkill Correctional Facility for non-violent behaviors related to his mental illness. Written from personal experience with incarceration at Fishkill, the op-ed calls for strict new measures of oversight and transparency, including mandatory public reporting of uses of  force and greater facility access for the media. However, the piece also notes that the culture of Fishkill is beyond repair and calls for its closure, along with the closure of a number of other prisons rife with abuse, in the upcoming state budget.

You can find the entire op-ed below.

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Strengthen prison oversight to quell brutalizing inmates

Published 4:03 pm, Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Today, the Assembly Committee on Correction is holding a hearing on prison oversight. Its members will grapple with the challenge of shining a light in our society’s darkest corners — a challenge which will require creative thinking and bold initiatives.

A movement toward more humane prisons must begin with increased transparency and meaningful accountability. The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision should be required to report publicly regarding incidents in the prisons, including use of force, allegations of abuse, and investigation findings. In addition, regular access to the prisons for media outlets to report on conditions would allow for greater public scrutiny.

Earlier this year, news of the killing of Samuel Harrell, who was incarcerated at Fishkill Correctional Facility, shocked the conscience of those who had never had contact with our prisons. For me, it came as no surprise.

From late 2010 to early 2014, I was incarcerated at Fishkill, too. There, I worked as an inmate grievance clerk for many months. I watched as countless grievances relating to staff abuse, including extremely severe beatings, were sent to the superintendent, who invariably quashed them, writing “staff member denies the allegation.”

Yet the abuses of what’s been known in Fishkill as the “beat up squad,” which has been accused in a lawsuit of being responsible for Harrell’s death, have long been known among Fishkill’s residents. Indeed, this is not the first time this “squad” has been accused of killings.

The truth is that across New York, COs assault, torture, and even kill people in our prisons. To be sure, it is not all or even most COs who abuse people, but in every prison where abuse takes place, the perpetrators are allowed and even encouraged to run wild while fellow COs turn a blind eye.

Still, it is important to remember that people outside the prison walls bear responsibility for the rights and well-being of incarcerated people, and we must speak out on the killing of Samuel Harrell.

Lawmakers should mandate protocols for independent tracking and reporting on grievances regarding officer abuse to ensure that problem officers like those responsible for Samuel Harrell’s death are identified, immediately removed from contact with incarcerated people, and held accountable. Similar procedures should be implemented to identify problem housing units like Fishkill’s 21 Building, or entire prisons, where abuse becomes endemic, so that the department may close those units and facilities and avoid future tragedies.

Addressing rampant human rights violations throughout the New York prison system should also include the closure of Fishkill in the upcoming state budget. Of course, the state should not stop there. Attica, Clinton, Green Meadow and other facilities rife with abuse should be closed, as well.

The culture of these facilities is beyond repair. Upstate and Southport — entire facilities of long-term solitary confinement — should be replaced with rehabilitative models that comply with international human rights standards.

Prison closures yield tens of millions of dollars in savings that can be reinvested in both the communities from which incarcerated people come and those in which mass incarceration has been the largest employer.

Adaptive reuse of prisons can serve substantial public good, as is the case with the former Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan, which is now slated to house a number of women’s rights organizations, and the former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, which will soon reopen as Warwick Yard, a destination sports village and a tech/manufacturing business park.

As the Black Lives Matter movement grows and gains traction, the state must heed demands for change and commit to protect those who are locked away in opaque and brutal institutions.

In order to root out the persistent abuse in our prisons, the governor and the Legislature must work to urgently strengthen oversight and establish swift, meaningful consequences in each and every incident. The impunity with which officers in our prisons mete out violence cannot be tolerated.