Many years ago, Dr. SJ and I took a trip to Dannemora, New York, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. The eight-seat plane had to circle before landing because there was a cow on the runway, and somebody had to shoo it away. We were there for a wedding, a college friend of Dr. SJ’s. Her husband was a corrections officer at Clinton Correctional Facility. Pretty much everybody in Dannemora works in a prison.
It was an impoverished area, with little reason to exist outside of warehousing New York City convicts. At the wedding, held in the one-room VFW Hall, where drinks were available from a vending machine provided you had spare change, we met a lot of prison guards. They all seemed nice enough to us. They were all white. They liked their jobs, but not so much the prisoners.
We talked about it, given that I was a city criminal defense lawyer and they were the guys who would watch over the next decade or so of my clients’ lives. They were fairly matter-of-fact about what they did during the day. They did a job, and had no intention of taking any crap from the convicts. They were not going to spend any time or empathy worrying about prisoners being human beings. It’s not that they had any hatred toward them, but that they had no empathy either.
The New York Times has a long-form article about a problem at Clinton. The problem is that inmates keep ending up dead. Governor Andrew Cuomo fails to see a problem with this.
At a news conference in September, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo dismissed the possibility that officer brutality in the state prison system was a serious problem, suggesting that force is sometimes necessary to keep order. “They have to make sure they get a certain amount of respect in the job, otherwise they get hurt,” Mr. Cuomo said.
The guys I met in Dannemora have no intention of allowing themselves to get hurt. They don’t get paid enough to get hurt. And it’s not like there are any other jobs to be had in Dannemora.
But there was a videotape of what happened to Leonard Strickland at Clinton, and it failed to support the allegations, the reports, the excuses, when he was declared dead.
The State Police concluded “that no criminal conduct of others contributed” to the death, and the Clinton County district attorney declined to present the case to a grand jury.
That’s a pretty official conclusion, which makes the Times’ report curious.
But what came next is indisputable. In a security video obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Strickland is seen in handcuffs, barely conscious and being dragged along the floor by officers, while a prison nurse standing close by does nothing. Even as he lies face down on the floor, near death, guards can be heard shouting, “Stop resisting.”
What happens inside a prison is easy to figure out. After all, the inmates are all criminals, and everybody knows they’re unworthy of belief. So whatever the guards say happened is the default truth. After all, why would they lie?
And as the good governor knows, criminals can be difficult, violent, hard-to-manage types, so they need to be taught a little respect. If not, guards could get hurt. Nobody who wants votes from the hinterlands of upstate New York, where the only industry is prisons, would be so callous as to not appreciate the need to safeguard the guards from the vicious prisoners.
But Leonard Strickland’s family sued. Not just sued, but refused to settle, so the case went to trial. And because the case went to trial, evidence was disclosed. This evidence would also be in the hands of the state police and district attorney, and they concluded that there was no criminal conduct in that very official way they do.
The Times has interviewed more than a dozen inmate witnesses in connection with several brutality cases in recent months, and not one had been shown photos of suspect officers by state investigators, they said.
Partly because the video evidence in the Strickland case was so compelling, investigators with the corrections department referred the case to the State Bureau of Labor Relations for possible departmental disciplinary action.
Is there no one to champion the protection of lives of prisoners at Clinton?
At a hearing this month in Albany, Daniel O’Donnell, the chairman of the State Assembly prisons committee, called for the creation of an independent oversight agency to monitor the state prison system. The meeting was adjourned, until an unspecified date, because the corrections department declined to testify.
While this might strike some as being adequate cause for the legislature to finally put its foot down at the hubris of the corrections department to simply “decline” to testify, it instead reflects the powerlessness of controlling what happens inside the walls of a prison.
After all, they need prisons, because where else are you going to put all those people being convicted? And places like Dannemora need prisons, because what else are the locals going to do to earn a living? And it’s not like there are videotapes to be had for all the beaten and murdered prisoners anyway, that might be investigated by a newspaper and revealed to show the banal brutality that might finally shock someone enough to give a damn.
And as Governor Cuomo says, if the good guys of Dannemora don’t teach these prisoners to show them respect, they could get hurt. Who wants one of those nice guys I met at that wedding years ago to get hurt?