The situation at Rikers is bad, but at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security facility more than 200 miles north of New York City, it’s worse.
by Victoria Law
Conditions in New York City jails have reached a boiling point, prompting day-long hearings, national media attention, and renewed calls for the Rikers Island jail complex to be shuttered. The jails have seen spikes in violence, deaths, suicides, and suicide attempts, heat waves without adequate cooling, and reduced access to basic services including medical and mental health care.
Yet in each of these areas, conditions are just as dire in many of New York’s upstate prisons—which, as of October 1, together incarcerated nearly 32,000 people, more than five times the population of New York City’s jails, but receive a fraction of the scrutiny from either oversight agencies or the press.
One prison in particular stands out. Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security facility in Washington County, according to the most recently available statistics, has the highest rate of suicides of any New York prison, the highest rate of suicide attempts, the highest rate of self-harm, and one of the highest rates of recorded staff violence.
On many of these measures, figures reveal an ongoing crisis at Great Meadow even more alarming than the one at Rikers. New York City jails have attracted significant attention for a spike in self-harm, up to 95 incidents per 1,000 incarcerated people. Great Meadow’s rate, according to the most recently available data, is over 50 percent higher, at 155 per 1,000.
In recent months, according to prisoners and staff of watchdog groups who visited the prison, the prison has seen near-daily assaults on prisoners by guards, little protection against extreme heat, and ongoing medical neglect. When prisoners do report these abuses, their grievances are rarely acted upon, multiple prisoners and their family members told New York Focus and The Nation. Many stay silent for fear of retaliation.
“I will put it to you like this,” Gerard Bastien, currently incarcerated at Great Meadow, said. “You see how police are killing people outside and get away with it? It’s the same thing in here, but worse.”
Police violence has been garnering steady attention and outrage, thanks in large part to cell phone videos and social media. But when similar abuses happen behind prison walls, there are no outside cameras to document them.
Bastien spent the summer in the prison’s “keeplock” unit, which confines approximately 80 people to their cells for 23 hours each day as punishment for rules violations. Over the course of one month, he said, he saw five separate assaults in his unit alone. In most of the assaults he described, multiple guards participated in the beatings. Some he could see through the small window of his cell door. In one instance, he witnessed an assault during his one hour of recreation time, which, in keeplock, takes place in a one-person cage. He described seeing three prison guards escorting another prisoner who was “bleeding badly on his face and his left eye was closed up.” In every case, he added, the men assaulted were Black.
Asked about reports of mass beatings by guards, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) said that all allegations of inappropriate use of force are “promptly and carefully” investigated by the department’s Office of Special Investigations, and that staff found to have committed misconduct are disciplined or criminally prosecuted. Data on the problem is sparse: While DOCCS documents incidents involving staff “uses of force” in its Unusual Incident Reports, these reports do not reflect the total number of uses of force, and the most recent report only includes incidents up to 2016.
These are far from the first reports of mass beatings in a New York state prison. Last year, for example, the state paid $5 million and agreed to install video cameras and microphones in another upstate maximum-security prison after a civil trial in which witnesses testified that multiple guards caused the death of 51-year-old Karl Taylor. But people incarcerated at Great Meadow say violence at the facility is particularly common.
“This prison is the worst prison in New York state,” Bastien said.
“The Garbage Heap of The State Prison System”
Great Meadow’s sprawling nine-acre campus lies behind a 24-foot wall in Washington County, approximately 60 miles northeast of Albany. The county is 92 percent white, while the majority of those imprisoned at Great Meadow are Black and another quarter are Latino.
The prison has a long history of violence and abuse. In 1976, following three near-riots, the State Commission of Correction, a state oversight agency, issued a scathing report, citing 91 complaints over a five-month period from the men imprisoned in Great Meadow. The commission found that the prison was the most volatile, earning it the reputation as “the garbage heap of the state prison system.”
Forty-five years later, people familiar with Great Meadow say, conditions have not improved.
“The reputation of Great Meadow is that it’s a ‘hands-on’ facility and is among one of the more punitive prisons in the state,” said Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit monitoring organization. “There’s a culture of deprivation and a lack of incentive to do well.”
There’s another parallel between headline-grabbing police violence and often-overlooked prison violence: the high portion of incarcerated people with mental illnesses. Prison watchdogs point to this as a contributing factor to the high rates of violence at Great Meadow; in November 2020, over 40 percent of its 1,347 prisoners were on the prison’s mental health caseload, and it houses the state’s only behavioral health unit.
Scaife said that guards lack training in interacting with people experiencing mental health crises or living with mental illness. “That’s another dangerous combination that results in dangerous situations like what happened with John McMillon,” she said, referring to the death in 2019 of a 67-year-old prisoner who had long struggled with anxiety, schizophrenia, epilepsy, and substance abuse.
Though the official autopsy listed McMillon’s cause of death as a heart attack, several prisoners told investigators that, less than two hours before his death, he had been severely beaten by several guards. DOCCS denied this assertion, calling it “a blatant abdication of the truth.”
DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey said that guards assigned to Great Meadow’s mental health programs receive 16 hours of mental health training annually, and two additional hours of suicide prevention training. Even so, the unit has seen greater rates of guard violence than other parts of the facility. In 2016, the unit housed just 2 percent of the prison’s population, but saw 15 percent of Great Meadow’s recorded uses of force by staff.
Recorded violence by prisoners is also extremely high at the prison: Between 2017 and 2019, the prison issued 245 violations for assault on guards, the highest number in the state’s 52-prison system, and a total of 1,852 violations for violent conduct by prisoners, according to data obtained through information requests.
Scaife attributed the high level of violent conduct to the prison’s culture. “I don’t think that’s a naturally occurring phenomenon,” she said. “There are certain conditions created at that prison due to its punitive culture, paramilitary organization of the (guards), and the relative lack of opportunities for programs, recreation, and other positive activities.”
The State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, a union which represents state prison guards, did not respond to questions about rates of violence at Great Meadow.
“Screaming Into a Canyon”
Rondell Purnell has been in seven prisons since he was first incarcerated in 2001. His stay at Great Meadow in 2016 was the hardest, he said: “Staff treatment there was the worst I’ve ever encountered.”
There are four seats at every table in Great Meadow’s chow hall, Purnell said, each of which must be filled before people can begin sitting at the next table.
On March 26, 2016, Purnell inadvertently broke this rule. “I missed a seat and sat at the next table and started a whole ’nother table,” he recalled. A prison guard berated him, he added, so Purnell agreed to move seats.
But after Purnell left the chow hall, he said, the guard pulled him out of the line to the area by the stairs.
“The last thing I remembered, I was standing against the wall for a pat search,” Purnell said. “I woke up under the staircase and in handcuffs.” He couldn’t open or see out of his right eye, and only partially out of his left.
The guard wrote him up, stating that Purnell had struck him twice and that “force became necessary to prevent further serious assault on my person.” Medical staff, who treated Purnell that afternoon, recorded a laceration in Purnell’s left eyebrow, bruising on his left shoulder, and swelling in his right cheekbone and eye socket. His injuries were severe enough that he was transported to an outside hospital by ambulance.
Purnell said he ultimately needed six stitches to his left eye and reconstructive surgery on the right side of his face. He was brought to the hospital. Upon his discharge, because of the guard’s report, he was transferred to Upstate Correctional Facility and placed in solitary confinement, where he remained for the next eight months.
Purnell filed a grievance, an internal prison complaint, about the assault. He recalled that someone from the Office of Special Investigations came to speak with him, but he said that the hearing was conducted in his absence. Purnell received the decision rejecting his grievance in the mail.
He appealed it and, nearly 10 months later, received a letter from DOCCS’ Central Office Review Committee. According to Purnell, the letter stated that investigators agreed with his grievance in part—that he suffered injuries—but that they did not agree with his description of how they were suffered.
Purnell filed a notice of intent of filing a lawsuit and is currently contacting attorneys to represent him.
If he hadn’t been transferred to another prison, Purnell said, he likely would have had to choose between informally resolving and withdrawing the grievance (“signing off” on it), or experiencing retaliation by guards. At Great Meadow, he said, “it’s sign off or get beat up!”
Guard retaliation for prisoners reporting abuse is frequent at Great Meadow, multiple prisoners and their family members said.
On the morning after McMillion’s death in 2019, Tracy, whose name has been changed in this story, visited her husband, another person imprisoned at Great Meadow. He was jumpy and nervous, she recalled.
“He told me he witnessed the guards kill someone,” she said. “He worried that they would retaliate against him as a witness.”
Their visit ended at 3 PM. Tracy’s husband typically calls at 5 after visits to check that she got home safely. That night, her phone didn’t ring until 8. It was another prisoner who told her that, after she had left, prison guards assaulted her husband and then whisked him out of sight.
Later, Tracy learned that her husband had been placed in solitary confinement, where he was unable to contact her for two weeks. Other men who saw him at sick call called and told her that he had swollen lips and reddened eyes. Once he was able to contact her, her husband told her that multiple guards had assaulted him before placing him in solitary confinement on allegations that she had passed him drugs during their visit. (Later, at an internal hearing, he was cleared of those charges.)
In all state prisons, prisoners can file grievances about prison conditions, including guard misconduct.
Despite its high rates of guard violence, Great Meadow had the second fewest number of grievances about guard misconduct in 2019, at just 52. Multiple people incarcerated there alleged that this is because their grievances simply aren’t recorded. “All of our grievances are disposed of and never processed when we write them up,” said Davide Coggins, who noted that he has filed multiple grievances about the prison’s lack of accommodation for his medical disability for over a year.
“Grievances are a joke,” Tranelle Drake, who has been at Great Meadow since March 2020, said. “When it’s on one of them you’d be lucky if it goes in. We try and try again and nothing can be done about it.”
Correctional Association staff have heard similar reports about the grievance system from people imprisoned at Great Meadow. “People feel like they’re screaming into a canyon when attempting to seek resources for something that happened to them inappropriately,” Scaife said.
“Enough Is Enough”
As COVID-19 has raged on, violence has not been the only dangerous feature of life at Great Meadows. Since DOCCS first started testing in 2020, Great Meadow has had 170 confirmed COVID-19 cases, or 13.4 percent of its population. Guards reportedly remain lax about safety protocols: Drake and Bastien said that guards consistently have not worn masks. Compounding the issue are the prison’s unsanitary conditions. “You have birds that fly around in here all day,” Drake told New York Focus and The Nation earlier this year. “Pee and feces all over the floors, and the radiators—the heat’s barely on while it’s freezing out. You got broken windows all through it. It’s filthy.”
Between November 2019 and December 2020, of the 14 prison suicides in state prisons, three occurred at Great Meadows. With only 4.3 percent of the prison system’s population, Great Meadow also saw nearly 20 percent of its suicide attempts and 12 percent of its self-harm incidents.
In late June 2021, concerned about these figures, Scaife and the Correctional Association visited Great Meadow. It was stifling—temperatures hovered at 91 degrees—yet guards refused to open the windows.
During their visit, Scaife recalled, one person started a fire in his cell in an attempt to have the windows opened in his cellblock. “That is the length that people will go to get their most basic needs met,” she said.
The violence, the suicides, the self-harm, the filthiness, the heat, the neglect—it all adds up to an existence that Bastien described as almost unbearable. “Enough is enough,” he said. “The world needs to know what is happening inside Great Meadow.”
Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender, and resistance. Her books include Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms (co-authored with Maya Schenwar), and “ Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration. This article is reprinted with permission, it can also be found at nyfocus.com.
This article was originally published November 10, 2021, at TheNation.com in partnership with New York Focus.
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