The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons

Michael Schwirtz, Michael Winerip and Robert Gebeloff, The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons. Part 1. The New York Times, 3 December 2016. “The racism can be felt from the moment black inmates enter New York’s upstate prisons. They describe being called porch monkeys, spear chuckers and worse. There are cases of guards ripping out dreadlocks. One inmate, John Richard, reported that he was jumped at Clinton Correctional Facility by a guard who threatened to “serve up some black mashed potatoes with tomato sauce.””

Update: Michael Schwirtz, Michael Winerip and Robert Gebeloff, Governor Cuomo Orders Investigation of Racial Bias in N.Y. State Prisons. The New York Times, 5 December 2016. “Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced on Monday that he was ordering an investigation into racial bias in the state prison system after an investigation by The New York Times found that black inmates were punished at significantly higher rates than whites, sent to solitary confinement more often and held there longer. “I am directing the state inspector general to investigate the allegations of racial disparities in discipline in state prisons and to recommend appropriate reforms for immediate implementation,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement issued on Monday, calling the report “disturbing.””

Most forbidding are the maximum-security penitentiaries — Attica, Clinton, Great Meadow — in rural areas where the population is almost entirely white and nearly every officer is too. The guards who work these cellblocks rarely get to know a black person who is not behind bars.

It is also measurable.

A review by The New York Times of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions found that racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.

In most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites — in some cases twice as often, the analysis found. They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations. At Clinton, a prison near the Canadian border where only one of the 998 guards is African-American, black inmates were nearly four times as likely to be sent to isolation as whites, and they were held there for an average of 125 days, compared with 90 days for whites.

A greater share of black inmates are in prison for violent offenses, and minority inmates are disproportionately younger, factors that could explain why an inmate would be more likely to break prison rules, state officials said. But even after accounting for these elements, the disparities in discipline persisted, The Times found….

Blacks make up only 14 percent of the state’s population but almost half of its prisoners. Racial inequities at the front end of the criminal justice system — arrest, conviction and sentencing — have been well documented.

The degree of racial inequity and its impact in the prison system as documented by The Times have rarely, if ever, been investigated. Nor are these issues systematically tracked by state officials. But for black inmates, what happens inside can be profoundly damaging….

So many of the racial problems in the New York’s prisons stem from a fundamental upstate-downstate culture clash that plays out daily on the cellblocks.

The largely white work force comes from places in northern, western and central New York like Elmira, Malone, Rome and Utica. These are some of the state’s poorer and less diverse communities, where, even as far north as the Canadian border, a Confederate flag can be spotted on the back of a pickup truck or hanging from a front porch. Inmates refer to some of the big maximum-security facilities as “family prisons,” where members of the same family have worked for generations. In these communities, prisons are often seen as political spoils, fiercely protected by upstate politicians for the jobs they provide.

With the disappearance of manufacturing upstate, prisons provide many of the middle-class jobs factories once did. They are fueled by a steady supply of inmates, mostly black or Latino, who are shipped north, far from the urban areas where they grew up. More than half of the state’s inmates are from New York City or its suburbs.

Blacks and whites are treated more equitably in some of the prisons close to the city, including Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, less than an hour by train from Grand Central Terminal.

Black officers make up the majority of the uniformed staff there, setting it apart from every other men’s prison in the state. There were no disciplinary disparities between whites and blacks at Sing Sing, according to a Times review of the 1,286 violations issued to inmates there for breaking prison rules….

The Times analyzed 59,354 disciplinary cases from last year. Systemwide, black inmates were 30 percent more likely to get a disciplinary ticket than white inmates. And they were 65 percent more likely to be sent to solitary confinement, where they are held in a cell 23 hours a day….

Some of the starkest evidence of bias involves infractions that are vaguely defined and give officers the greatest discretion. Disobeying a direct order by an officer can be as minor as moving too slowly when a guard yells, “Get out of the shower.” It is one of the most subjective prison offenses. For every 100 black prisoners, guards issued 56 violations for disobeying orders, compared with 32 for every 100 whites, according to the analysis….

Assault on prison workers may seem like a straightforward infraction, but a closer look reveals a disturbing pattern. There were 1,028 such violations issued in the state system last year. Black men received 61 percent of them, while white men received 9 percent. Under department rules, officers have considerable leeway over what constitutes an assault. An inmate need not cause an injury or even touch an officer….

No other prison in the state is like Sing Sing. Of the 686 uniformed staff members there, 83 percent are black or Latino, compared with 17 percent for the entire state prison system….

The disciplinary disparities in most of the other prisons do not exist at Sing Sing. Black inmates make up 57 percent of the population there and get 58 percent of the tickets.

Guards write fewer disciplinary tickets there than they do at most other maximum-security prisons. In 2015, there were 27 tickets given for assault on staff at Sing Sing, compared with 91 at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison of similar size in Comstock….

There is evidence that the inequitable treatment of blacks in state prisons has been going on for decades. In 1993, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, a federal judge ordered the state to correct disparities at Elmira. Based on a detailed statistical analysis, the judge, David G. Larimer, concluded that black inmates were assigned the worst prison jobs, housed on the most decrepit cellblocks and disciplined out of proportion to their numbers.

In a ruling meant to correct these imbalances, Judge Larimer mandated quotas to ensure that black prisoners would get a fair share of the good jobs and housing on preferred cellblocks. Those quotas remain in place. To this day, the Prisoners’ Rights Project receives regular reports from the corrections department listing the number of Elmira inmates by race for the most desired jobs and housing blocks.

At the time, Legal Aid also asked that discipline be monitored for racial disparities, but the state resisted.

John Boston, the lead lawyer for the prisoners, warned in court that without such monitoring, black inmates would continue to be singled out disproportionately for punishment. “Once everybody’s head is turned and we all move on to something else, the problem is likely to reassert itself,” he said at the time.

That is exactly what happened. After more than two decades, disparities in housing and jobs at Elmira have largely disappeared. But as The Times’s analysis showed, discipline in Elmira is still as racially skewed now as it was in the 1980s, with black inmates punished at about twice the rate of whites….

Through the years, the corrections department has made attempts to integrate the work force at some of the big upstate prisons. In the 1970s and ’80s, black officers from the Buffalo area were transferred to Attica. While the two communities are just 35 miles apart, Attica sits in the middle of farm fields, in the overwhelmingly white Wyoming County. The new black guards were mercilessly harassed, said Tyrrell Muhammad, who was imprisoned at Attica then and is now a project associate at the Correctional Association, an inmate advocacy group that has a state mandate to monitor conditions in the prisons. Mr. Muhammad said black officers were roughed up and humiliated in front of the other guards. Most left, he said….

Even if the department wanted to transfer black officers into the upstate prisons, a seniority provision in the state’s contract with the guards’ union would make that impossible. It is the officers who decide where they work, not the prison superintendents or even the corrections commissioner. The state is negotiating a new contract, but union officials say that seniority rules are not negotiable.

Federal intervention has been one of the few effective means of addressing the racial inequities and civil-rights violations in New York State prisons. It has worked at Elmira for housing and jobs and has been somewhat successful in holding officers accountable for the worst excesses of brutality and discrimination.

On Sept. 21, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that a group of corrections officers at Downstate Correctional Facility, in Fishkill, had been arrested over the brutal beating of Kevin Moore, a black inmate. Mr. Moore, 56 at the time, had five broken ribs, a collapsed lung and shattered bones in his face. The guards, who called themselves the Downstate Four, were also accused of ripping out his dreadlocks. One of them even bragged about using the dreadlocks to decorate his motorcycle, the indictment said.

Just as egregious was the cover-up, Mr. Bharara said: The officers hit one of their own on the back with a baton to make him appear injured, took several photos for the record and falsified reports claiming that Mr. Moore had attacked them, according to the indictment.

“Excessive use of force in prisons, we believe, has reached crisis proportions in New York State,” Mr. Bharara said at the news conference….

Mr. Moore was so badly beaten that he spent 17 days in the hospital.

What happened next is a prime example of why many inmates consider the prison disciplinary system to be a farce.

Mr. Moore was issued a ticket for assault on staff and put in solitary confinement after being discharged from the hospital.

It was only when an internal affairs investigator with the corrections department intervened that Mr. Moore was let out of isolation and the assault charge was dropped.

By then, he said, he had spent 26 days in solitary confinement. After the officers were indicted, he was transferred out of state custody and moved to an undisclosed location to protect him from possible reprisals by corrections officers.