Commentary: New York falls short on dignity in its prisons

By Soffiyah Elijah
Commentary - Times Union
Saturday, September 9, 2017
(Reprinted from the Times Union)

Our state may lead the nation in progress on fronts like welfare and public health, but when it comes to treating those in our criminal justice system with dignity, New York's progress is insufficient. Many New Yorkers are fed up with the dismal state of New York's prison system and we are doing something about it.

On Aug. 26, family members, formerly incarcerated people and a host of other concerned community members began the March for Justice. Led by the Alliance of Families for Justice, we are walking from Harlem to Albany to bring these issues to the attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state Legislature and the public. We are calling for meaningful reform of the use of solitary confinement, reform of the parole system, more support for family visitation to people in prison, and we are also calling for the closure of the notorious Attica prison. We will arrive Wednesday in Albany, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison massacre, and will make our case to elected officials and the public at a rally at West Capitol Park.

When someone is sentenced to prison, their families serve the time with them. They suffer in silence. The Alliance of Families for Justice helps families transform their pain into power.

One week after Karl Taylor was killed in April 2015 in what authorities say was a fight with guards at Sullivan Correctional Facility, Samuel Harrell also died in a struggle with guards at Fishkill Correctional Facility. Terry Cooper died at Clinton Correctional Facility a year later under circumstances that to this day remain unknown. No guards have been prosecuted in these cases.

New York is notorious for the culture of violence that pervades its prisons. Abuse by guards is routine and accepted as part of the prison "experience." Guards can inflict physical and mental abuse and often do so without disciplinary action. We need our state government to start looking at the contracts it signs with correction officer unions to make sure they include accountability measures that stop them from beating and killing those living in our jails and prisons.

New York is failing incarcerated people in several other areas, as well. Despite reforms on solitary confinement, the practice is still aggressively used as a disciplinary tool while research shows the damaging psychological effects of prolonged isolation. The American Psychological Association outlines the adverse mental health problems caused by solitary confinement and notes that "mentally impaired prisoners are disproportionately represented in solitary confinement." Yet more than 4,000 people are subjected to solitary confinement in New York prisons every day, which is nearly 9 percent of the total prison population.

New York's prison system also fails our youth. Earlier this year the state Legislature passed a bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, beginning in October 2019. Before this law, New York was one of only two states that automatically charged 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. The majority of them were prosecuted for misdemeanor crimes according to state arrest records. The new law is a welcome reform, but today, youths continue to live in New York's adult prisons where they are physically abused by guards in similar fashion to their older counterparts. What is being done to protect them?

Health care is another area of documented failure. One private medical company under contract with the state was criticized for "egregious lapses in medical care" leading to six inmate deaths between 2009 and 2012. And right here in Albany, responding to the recent death of Mark Cannon in the Albany County jail, the state Commission of Correction found the mental health care he received to be "so grossly inadequate ... it shocks the conscience."

Cuomo is to be commended for allotting funds for higher education programs for people in New York prisons, but when we know that for every $1 spent on education in prisons, we save $4 or $5 down the line, why limit those educational opportunities only to people serving the last five years of their sentences?

As people with family members in prison, and their supporters, we know that when someone is sentenced to prison, their families serve the time with them. Too often, families suffer in silence. With this March for Justice, the Alliance of Families for Justice and our allies are helping families of people in prison transform their pain into power.

Soffiyah Elijah is the founder and director of the Alliance of Families for Justice.