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Uprisings in New York State Prisons

By Julia Lutsky

Brutality by guards lay behind a major uprising at the Mohawk Correctional Facility in upstate New York in July 1997. Josea Benefield, a 22 year-old African-American prisoner in solitary confinement was reported to have hung himself with a bed sheet on Thursday, July 17. He had been scheduled for release on parole in 90 days. Former prisoners say there is nothing from which to hang anything in "the box" -- only a bed and minimal toilet facilities. There is not even a light switch; cell lighting is controlled from the outside. The following day prisoners demonstrated rejection of the official explanation by dressing identically in their "full green" and staging food strikes at both lunch and supper.

During the afternoon of July 18 at least 100 prisoners witnessed the open beating of a handcuffed prisoner, and later, after the supper hour when they were congregated in the recreation yard, the beating of another prisoner. At this second beating, a number of prisoners attacked the guard. Over a hundred guards were brought in from nearby prisons and, by the time control was returned to the administration, 10 guards had been hurt. The New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) would not say how many prisoners had been hurt. Ninety are known to have been transferred. Since the 1972 prison revolt at Attica the Corrections Department Public Relations Office has learned to control information and, according to Jose Santiago, News Director of Pacifica station, WBAI, often simply refuses to answer questions.

Mohawk is a 1,300 bed medium - security prison, one of several near Rome, New York. Prisoners live in dormitories rather than in cells. Both ex-prisoners and the families of men presently incarcerated insist that, although there is certainly overcrowding in New York prisons, there are no more than 15 or 20 prisoners above the limit at Mohawk. The families reported that prisoners are often beaten, and that, when visiting, they themselves are rudely treated. Among former prisoners Mohawk has a history of serious abuse by guards and a reputation as one of the worst prisons in the state. According to the ex-prisoners, there is a group of between 5 and 18 guards at Mohawk who wear tattoos showing the head of an African American baby with its neck in a noose. This tattoo has been seen at other state penal institutions as well. At least one ex-prisoner is pursuing a case of medical malpractice and abuse against the prison. The prison hospital has recently suffered severe cutbacks in both personnel and supplies so that prisoners often go entirely without treatment.

Disturbances at two other New York State prisons have also been reported recently. On August 4, 1997, a fight in the prison recreational yard resulted in the lockdown of 735 of the 2,195 prisoners at Sing Sing prison in Ossining just north of New York City. Four prisoners were removed to hospitals where one was reported to be in critical condition. Guards reported that they had found more than 30 weapons, among them home made knives and single edge razor blades.

At Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, about 140 miles north of Albany, three fights occurred on August 8, 1997. All of them took place in the mess hall and kitchen of the prison, and all of them involved home made weapons. Sean Davis, 27, and Terrance Davis (unrelated), 29, were taken to a nearby hospital and reported to be in fair condition. Nine prisoners were treated at Dannemora as were 11 guards. Though guards reportedly ended the violence in only 20 minutes, according to the AP dispatch (NY Times, 8/10/97), normal operations were suspended that same night, August 8.

From the available information, it is not possible to determine whether these instances at Clinton and Sing Sing resulted from overcrowding or more directly from guard brutality. Guards have been known to provide for the arming of particular prisoners and to arrange for what they know to be potentially dangerous confrontations.

Governor George Pataki and the State Legislature announced a deal on the state's long overdue budget at the end of July. Debate around the criminal justice system had centered primarily on the number of new prisons and cells to be constructed over the next five years. Each new maximum security cell costs about $293,000; the Governor had argued for 7,000 of them in three new prisons. The Assembly had proposed 1,000, a drug program and the hiring of more corrections officers. The "compromise" agreement will provide for one new maximum-security prison with 750 double-occupancy cells and 800 additional double-occupancy maxi- mum-security cells at existing medium-security institutions. The new prison will be constructed in Altamont, just west of Albany. Both it and the additional cells will mean more jobs for the communities in which they are built, and guaranteed profits for the companies that supply them with everything from food and clothing to office supplies.

At least 40 upstate towns in 19 counties had requested prisons be built in their jurisdictions. During the debates Corrections Commissioner Glenn Goord said that the Mohawk uprising proved the state needed more prisons. Since the real problem at Mohawk is abuse, the entire affair is discussed behind closed doors. People may believe an argument for more prisons premised on overcrowding, but they will surely not believe it if they are informed about the brutality taking place within them.

Pacifica station WBAI July 18 and subsequent news broadcasts; NY Times AP dispatches, 8/7, 8/8/97; People's Weekly World, 8/16/97

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