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Another Voice

Security cameras can’t keep New York prisons safe

By Jennifer Scaife

Last week the family of Dante Taylor filed a lawsuit alleging staff at Wende Correctional Facility beat the 22-year-old “beyond recognition,” and hours later failed to prevent his suicide. Photographs taken of him at the prison in Erie County on the day of his death depict misshapen lips, a blackened eye, and severe swelling on the right side of his face.

The Correctional Association of New York, which under state law has authority to monitor prisons, frequently encounters vulnerable incarcerated people like Dante. A man we interviewed in solitary confinement at Green Haven Correctional Facility the afternoon of Dec. 11, 2019, died by suicide later that night. During a monitoring visit to Southport Correctional Facility in August 2019, we spoke with a person who, according to staff at the prison, was subdued after spitting blood in the face of a sergeant. When we saw him, he was bleeding, and had deep indentations on his wrists from handcuffs.

Of 386 survey responses we received from four prisons last year, 69.7% of incarcerated people reported having experienced physical, sexual or verbal abuse by prison staff, and 82.8% reported witnessing such abuse. Nearly a quarter (23.7%) of respondents reported having had serious thoughts of or attempts at suicide. One man wrote, “I witnessed officers and a sergeant beat up an inmate because he asked to see mental health because he was feeling suicidal.”

The family of Karl Taylor, a man with mental health problems who was killed by officers at Sullivan Correctional Facility in 2015, recently received a measure of justice. New York State agreed to pay $5 million to his estate and to install cameras with audio recording equipment throughout the prison. The settlement, the largest payment ever made by the state for a death in custody, is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing on the part of state employees and of the profound suffering they caused.

The settlement also exposes prisons for what they are: brutal places where staff, unequipped to address the needs of people with mental health problems, rely on sanctions like solitary confinement to deal with troubling behavior. Incarcerated people and staff alike find themselves in dangerous, frightening situations when these punitive interventions fail, as they inevitably do.

Prison conditions like these degrade and endanger us all. Incarcerated people need opportunities to recover and make amends in therapeutic environments. Prison staff need training and support, and they must be held to account for wrongdoing. Communities need alternatives to incarceration that allow people to access treatment close to home. New York must do better – for the people we send to prison, those who work there, and our society as a whole.

Jennifer Scaife is executive director of the Correctional Association of New York.

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