Reports Of Prison Guard Brutality In New York Draw A Harsh Spotlight A rash of incidents involving guards' use of violence against prisoners, sometimes caught on video, is fueling calls for accountability. Others say the focus should be on increasingly violent inmates.
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Reports Of Prison Guard Brutality In New York Draw A Harsh Spotlight

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Reports Of Prison Guard Brutality In New York Draw A Harsh Spotlight

Reports Of Prison Guard Brutality In New York Draw A Harsh Spotlight

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Every few weeks there's a new case of a black man killed by police officers, the whole thing caught on video. There's been a national conversation over how and when police use deadly force.

Well, in New York State, similar questions are being raised about how corrections officers work behind bars. Critics say prison guards too often resort to violence with little accountability. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: The last couple of years, Americans have grown used to seeing video of deadly confrontations between black men and police. But here's something we almost never see.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Stay - hey, hey.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Stay on the wall.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Stay on the wall.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Listen to me. Stay on the wall. Do you understand me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Don't move.

MANN: It's video of a closed world invisible to most of us. A half dozen white corrections officers at Clinton Dannemora prison in upstate New York are confronting an African-American inmate named Leonard Strickland. He appears dazed and unresponsive, and then he collapses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Through radio) Five-nine-three-three.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Get an emergency kit - medical emergency.

MANN: The video was filmed by a guard in 2010 and first made public by The New York Times. Strickland died after being struck on the head. State investigators issued a scathing report about the incident, but no officers were disciplined or charged.

PREET BHARARA: Excessive use of force in prisons we believe has reached crisis proportions in New York State.

MANN: That's U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. Last month he charged five former corrections officers who worked at a different state prison in Fishkill, N.Y., with federal civil rights violations. In a press conference, Bharara and FBI officials who conducted part of the investigation said guards beat an African-American inmate named Kevin Moore so savagely that he suffered five broken ribs, skull fractures and a collapsed lung. The FBI's Bill Sweeney said guards tore out hunks of Moore's dreadlocked hair.

BILL SWEENEY: One of the officers allegedly boasted of the group's illicit conduct by referring to the dreadlocks ripped from Moore's scalp as souvenirs.

MANN: Investigators allege officers then arranged an elaborate cover up. This kind of prison guard violence has also drawn new scrutiny from New York's legislature. Democrat Daniel O'Donnell opened an assembly hearing last winter by describing another case where corrections officers were accused of brutalizing a prisoner.

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DANIEL O'DONNELL: An inmate died, and after the inmate died, official explanation was fabricated. And what we now know is that the inmate was in fact murdered, murdered by employees of the state of New York.

MANN: He's talking about Samuel Harrell, an African-American inmate who died last year after an altercation with officers at Fishkill Correctional. No charges have been filed in that case, but the U.S. Attorney's Office confirms that it's investigating.

Corrections officers and their political allies have pushed back against the way this debate is being framed. State Assemblywoman Janet Duprey is a Republican whose district includes a half dozen state prisons including Clinton Dannemora.

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JANET DUPREY: The vast majority of these men and women do their jobs incredibly well under very difficult circumstances, and I hope that as we go forward, we don't ever lose sight of that.

MANN: Mike Powers heads the powerful corrections officer union in New York. He says the real issue that lawmakers should focus on is an increasingly violent inmate population. He says too many prisons are understaffed and overcrowded.

MIKE POWERS: Your life's on the line, and you're doing everything you can to defend yourself. Before you know it, we're the ones being scrutinized by the advocates as being horrific corrections officers.

MANN: But reform advocates and some legal experts say this kind of scrutiny is long overdue. They say violence by guards is a problem in prisons across the country, not just in New York. Michael Mushlin testified at the assembly hearing last winter. He teaches at Pace Law School and co-chairs a panel of the American Bar Association that pushes for more prison transparency and accountability.

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MICHAEL MUSHLIN: These prisons can be dark places when you have a lack of oversight as we do basically throughout this country. Inevitably horrible things are going to happen.

MANN: Mushlin says the problem is complicated by race. Many prison guards in the U.S. are white and come from rural communities while inmate populations tend to be disproportionately African-American and urban.

In the face of these latest accusations and federal indictments, New York has already strengthened the internal affairs unit that investigates state prisons. Critics want the state legislature to go farther, creating an independent oversight agency to review cases where inmates are injured or killed by officers. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in upstate New York.

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