(Content note: This article contains mention of racial slurs and sexual vulgarity.)
Retaliatory harassment, surveillance, caging, physical abuse, death threats, and poisoning are all tactics the United States government may classify as torture. Yet they have all been employed—and therefore tacitly sanctioned—by the New York City Police Department and the New York state government against Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the infamous death of Eric Garner at the hands of law enforcement.
On August 2, 2014, roughly three weeks after he released the footage of police choking Garner as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe” 11 times, Orta was arrested. Orta says he was selling weed and that the officers framed him with possession of an unlicensed gun. “Smile, motherfucker,” one officer reportedly remarked as a gang of police surrounded him, holding cell phones near his face. Like the vast majority of people charged with a crime in the United States, he accepted a plea deal rather than risk longer-term confinement following an expensive trial.
His fiancee, Deja, says Orta has been “ping-ponged” across the state’s carceral system over the course of three years.
“It’s designed to break you, and that’s what it’s really doing to him,” Deja told Prism. She said he’s been systematically targeted from the beginning with bogus disciplinary infractions that led to long stints in solitary confinement and prolonged his incarceration.
”The mental, the physical, the verbal abuse, it’s just been so much. He just explains it as, you know, ‘Deja, I’m tired,’” she said grimly. “You know what that means.”
After 10 transfers, Orta landed at Mid-State Correctional Facility in upstate New York and is set for release this July.
But Deja and the rest of his support team fear that authorities at Mid-State may try to lengthen his confinement, or worse. On April 15, WeCopwatch put out an urgent statement detailing how officers threatened to expose Orta to the novel coronavirus. Several days later, he fell sick with a fever, which turned out to be a false alarm. Then on April 21, WeCopwatch reported that corrections officers threatened Orta again.
“You aren’t going to make it home, cause you want to snitch on us. You want to post about us? Suck my d**ck you ni**er bitch. Go write about that on your Facebook page,” they allegedly said.
According to the Support Ramsey Orta Facebook page, as of April 29, four corrections officers and nine incarcerated people had tested positive for the virus at Mid-State. Authorities at the prison aren’t providing people with the information or the supplies needed to protect themselves, and the facility is reportedly denying Orta showers, soap, tissue, cleaning supplies, and enough food.
“They don’t even know who has it,” said Deja. “We don’t know who the people who had it were in contact with.”
As of May 5, 13 people incarcerated in New York and four prison staff members have died from the virus.
The state of New York incarcerates roughly 42,700 people in its prisons and holds more than 14,000 people in its jail system. The number of people in New York City jail custody, according to its own statistics, decreased by 1,100 from March 16 to April 6.
However, advocates and incarcerated people—who point out that it is impossible to socially distance behind bars—say this isn’t enough and urge New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to immediately grant clemency to vulnerable populations.
“New York’s constitution allows the governor to grant clemency to any person who is impacted by the state prison system,” said David George, associate director of Release Aging People from Prisons in an interview with Vice. “At any point, Cuomo can grant release or a sentence reduction to any one of the tens of thousands of New Yorkers in his prison system. He has total control. He doesn’t have to go through a state agency or anything bureaucratic. It’s totally up to him.” To date, Cuomo hasn’t used his power to release anyone during the pandemic.
Supporters for Orta are encouraging people to increase the pressure by calling and emailing Cuomo’s office and individuals within the New York State Department of Corrections.
Prisons across the country, which confine 21% of the world’s incarcerated population, are quickly becoming death camps. There isn’t a standardized reporting mechanism, making it difficult to assess the scope of the problem, but the ACLU has tracked more than 200 deaths behind bars. In April, a 30-year-old Native American woman in federal prison on drug charges gave birth while on a ventilator, then died of COVID-19.
The ACLU sponsored an epidemiological model that assesses the death toll in the United States while taking the virus’ interaction with the incarcerated population into account, a factor the Trump administration failed to consider in its projections.
“As many as 200,000 people could die from COVID-19—double the government estimate—if we continue to ignore incarcerated people in our public health response,” they reported. Black, brown, and indigenous communities are dying at an alarmingly disproportionate rate, and this rate is further exacerbated by jails and prison infections.
As these communities know all too well, the system cannot be trusted to do the right thing. Concessions must be forced.
“Deja and I do not have faith in Midstate, NYSDOCC, or the Governor to do what is right,” WeCopwatch wrote in a statement. “That is not their job. But we do have faith in all of you. Your love and concern not only for Ramsey, but for the world you wish to live in is what gives us hope.”