GettyImages-589931216.jpg

Tuesday evening, New York state repealed 50-A, a long ignored but deeply powerful police secrecy law that allowed police departments to seal the disciplinary records of their officers. “Repeal 50-A” became one of the many demands made by New York protestors and advocates who have been denouncing longstanding police violence on Black communities, and the specific incidents of violence that have occurred during Black Lives Matter protests over the past two weeks.

Although much of the public focus and protest has centered on the way 50-A protects police, the law also allows sealing the personnel records of New York state correctional officers. As a result, the misconduct and violence that occurs behind prison walls has evaded widespread scrutiny. 

“Incarcerated people are put in chokeholds, knees are put on their back, they stand on your ankles, while they have you laid out flat and handcuffed. If there’s two, one officer will stand on one ankle and the other officer will stand on another ankle,” said Herbert Morales, a 1844 fellow at the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), the only independent organization authorized by state law to monitor New York state prisons. “I’ve seen officers in Attica, after they’ve handcuffed an individual, drag [them] face down on the steps so all you hear was his head thudding against the steps. They knock out teeth, they break ribs. What we’re seeing now with the police out here and what they do is nothing compared to what correctional officers do on a daily basis inside.”

CANY describes itself as “the voice of incarcerated New Yorkers,” and assesses state prison conditions by conducting surveys, managing written complaints from those inside, and interviewing both incarcerated people as well as facility staff. A report released by the association in March found that in four New York state maximum security prisons, almost 70% of incarcerated people reported having experienced physical, sexual, or verbal abuse by staff with a little over 80% having witnessed that abuse.

Morales, along with Phil Miller, CANY associate director of policy, and Tyrell Muhammad, CANY’s monitoring associate, are all formerly incarcerated and have seen this violence firsthand. In their current roles at CANY, they hear about these abuses on an ongoing basis. They estimated they received about 65 letters and complaints last year from incarcerated people per week.

Much like the police brutality rippling across American streets, violence inside is also highly racialized. In their March report, 76% of incarcerated respondents reported witnessing racist behavior by staff. In visits to Auburn and Attica correctional facilities, CANY found Blue Lives Matter imagery, as well as anti-Muslim sentiments and racist vigilante symbols painted on the walls in cell blocks.

However, despite their robust documentation of abuse, CANY staff says that barriers around transparency still seriously limits how much they know about what is happening inside prison walls. While the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) is designed to provide oversight, Morales says that the agency “does not like to take any criticism at all” and has thwarted CANY’s suggestions to implement new measures based on their past findings. DOCCS declined to speak with Prism for this story.

In addition to supporting the repeal of 50-A, CANY is also advocating for a recently proposed state bill that would promote transparency between the public and DOCCS, the agency that manages the state’s 52 prisons as well as the supervision of New Yorkers on parole. According to CANY, A10194 would “level the playing field” between them and DOCCS and ultimately help shed light on the ongoing violence waged by correctional officers against incarcerated New Yorkers.  

Assembly Bill A10194 would grant less restricted access to the experiences of incarcerated New Yorkers, with provisions within the bill that would allow CANY to conduct unannounced prison inspections without providing 30 days advance notice, as is currently required. During these visits, the bill would also allow CANY to have private conversations with incarcerated people and correctional officers without the presence of DOCCS staff members. According to Miller, the presence of DOCCS staff during these interviews can stifle both facility staff and those incarcerated from speaking truthfully about their experiences due to fear of retaliation.

A10194 would also allow CANY open access to records and information including unedited video footage without having to file Freedom of Information Act requests. “Currently, if you try to get audio or video footage from DOCCS they’ll either tell you that it doesn’t exist, the camera wasn’t working, the audio wasn’t working, or you’ll get a copy of it that’s so heavily redacted, it’s pretty much useless,” said Miller.

At a time when the public is increasingly aware of the violence leveled against civilians on the street by law enforcement, Muhammad urges people to understand how what happens inside of prisons is just an extension of what police officers are doing on the street. That includes the very same kinds of brutality as well as the denial that violence even occurs.

During an investigation of deaths inside of DOCCS facilities, CANY received documents that showed an overwhelming number of suicide deaths by asphyxiation. While getting second autopsies can be arduous for families, a closer look into some of those deaths caused concern.  “When we did get some that got second opinions, the second opinions raised questions of whether it was asphyxiation or strangulation,” said Muhammad. “So this is a thing, and because it happens on the outside it shows the pattern of racist killing by law enforcement.”

The current uprisings throughout the country, which have already ushered in monumental changes on the local level, were fueled in large part by video footage of George Floyd’s death under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. CANY staff believes that this bill will allow them to become “the equivalent of a cell phone video in the street.” The information they could garner with this unfettered access would be shared with the legislature and the public, allowing organizations to better advocate for incarcerated people.

“You know, right now a light is being shined on police brutality and abuses and a lack of oversight and accountability that has been in existence in Corrections since Corrections began, and it hasn’t improved that much,” said Morales. “This bill that we have pending right now, will go a long way towards accountability and transparency. “

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.