by Joe Watson
A number of prisoners at the medium-security Fishkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York swore under oath that fellow prisoner Samuel D. Harrell III was kicked and beaten to death by as many as twenty guards in April 2015.
According to at least 19 signed affidavits, the prisoners watched as the guards shouted racial slurs, threw Harrell down a staircase and jumped on him “like he was a trampoline.” One witness wrote that Harrell was “bent in an impossible position” as he lay on the concrete floor.
“His eyes were open,” the statement read, “but they weren’t looking at anything.”
Harrell, a 30-year-old African American whose nickname was JRock, had told other prisoners earlier in the day that he would be going home and a family member was en route to pick him up. But he had a history of mental illness, including delusions and bipolar disorder, and actually had more than five years remaining on his sentence for a drug conviction.
After Harrell gathered his belongings to leave he was confronted by a group of guards, known to most Fishkill prisoners as the “Beat Up Squad,” who threw him to the ground and handcuffed him before allegedly beating him to death.
When an ambulance crew arrived, the guards made no mention of a physical altercation with Harrell, according to medical records; instead, they told the EMTs that Harrell had likely overdosed on K2, a type of synthetic marijuana also known as “spice.”
However, an autopsy report by the Orange County Medical Examiner, which was obtained and reviewed by The New York Times, indicated Harrell had no illicit drugs in his system. He died, the report said, of homicide caused by “cardiac arrhythmia due to hypertensive cardiovascular disease following a physical altercation with corrections officers” – an altercation that left cuts and bruises to his head and extremities.
In 2013, New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) had been notified by the Correctional Association of New York, a prisoner advocacy group, of documented “harassment and provocation” by Fishkill guards working the swing shift (when Harrell was killed). The reports of abuse also made their way to William J. Connolly, Fishkill’s former superintendent, before he resigned in August 2015, four months after Harrell’s death. But problems persisted with the so-called “Beat Up Squad.”
Five weeks before Harrell was killed, David Martinez, a prisoner in the same unit at Fishkill, wrote in a grievance that he was being harassed and assaulted by a group of guards. He described them in a subsequent grievance as “a group of rogue officers” who “go around beating up people.”
Another prisoner, Rickey Rodriguez, told the Times that when he was incarcerated at Fishkill in July 2015, he was beaten by guards so badly that he lost his two front teeth and had to be hospitalized. The newspaper reported that when Rodriguez was interviewed a week after his release, he was “still covered with cuts and bruises, and the white of his right eye was stained red with blood.”
“They go out of their way to pick and choose to beat on guys,” Rodriguez said.
As of August 2015, none of the Fishkill guards involved in Harrell’s death, based on witness accounts, had been suspended, fired or arrested – including Sgt. Joseph Guarino, the ranking guard at the scene. Since 2011, the state had settled at least two lawsuits accusing Guarino, 60, of brutality, totaling $125,000 in damages.
In August 2015, the then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, and the Dutchess County District Attorney’s Office announced they had commenced a joint criminal investigation into Harrell’s death.
Another Fishkill prisoner, Kevin Moore, 56, was severely injured in an altercation with a group of prison guards in November 2013, during which he was beaten, kicked and struck with a baton. Moore had been scheduled to spend only one night at the facility but sustained injuries serious enough to warrant a month-long stay in two hospitals, including a collapsed lung, five broken ribs and fractured eye sockets. A chunk of his hair was torn out.
Moore’s injuries were so extensive that Rikers Island guards who arrived to transfer him from the prison refused to take him into custody unless his injuries were photographed and documented. According to a March 29, 2016 article in the Times Union, at least two Fishkill guards – Kathy L. Scott and George Santiago – were fired based on “credible evidence” they had participated in the assault and tried to cover it up. Two other guards, Donald Cosman and Carson Morris, were disciplined for using excessive force; Carson later resigned.
The Dutchess County DA’s office had launched an investigation into the Moore case in June 2015, but came up empty. That investigation was consolidated with joint local-federal efforts already underway in the probe into Samuel Harrell’s death.
“We reached a point where it became apparent that the investigative resources of the U.S. Attorney’s Office coupled with the federal grand jury rules of evidence would enhance our ability to conduct a more thorough investigation,” Dutchess County DA Bill Grady said when the joint review was launched.
In April 2016, a number of Harrell’s family members, including his father and sister, took part in a five-day hunger strike and vigil. The purpose of the protest was to raise public awareness of brutality against New York prisoners.
Harrell’s family had earlier filed a federal lawsuit against the state, several of the guards who were allegedly involved in beating Harrell to death and the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association. See: Harrell v. DOCCS, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:15-cv-07065-RA. At the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the suit was temporarily suspended pending the outcome of the criminal investigation, which remains ongoing.
Sources: www.nytimes.com, www.countercurrentnews.com, www.poughkeepsiejournal.com, www.democracynow.org, www.recordonline.com, www.timesunion.com
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Related legal case
Harrell v. DOCCS
|U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:15-cv-07065-RA
|Court of Appeals