NYT Editorial: “Bringing Prison Guards to Justice”

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The New York Times in this editorial today is saying what we at the CA have been reporting on for decades: without any any transparency and accountability, the abuse of people who are incarcerated will persist and those who are responsible will still act with impunity. Until accountability is the norm and not the exception, the abuse — and in some cases, loss of life — will continue.

New York State prison guards sometimes get away with barbaric acts of brutality because their union shields even the worst of them from prosecution — and because district attorneys in communities dominated by prisons are hesitant to bring difficult, politically unpopular cases.

The Justice Department stepped forcefully into this vacuum last week, charging five corrections officers with fraud and violating the civil rights of an inmate who was beaten nearly to death at Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill in 2013. This prosecution sends a powerful message to both the union and local district attorneys who have grown complacent about such episodes.

The court documents in the case, brought by the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, read like something out of a medieval torture manual. They describe how a group of guards assigned to supervise 56-year-old Kevin Moore beat, kicked and struck him with batons after he talked back to them — and left him lying in a pool of blood.

During the beating, a clump of dreadlocks was ripped out of Mr. Moore’s head. One of the officers claimed it as a “trophy” and bragged that he would use it to decorate his motorcycle. The inmate’s injuries required a lengthy hospital stay and included five fractured ribs, a collapsed lung and several broken facial bones.

Instead of sending Mr. Moore to the hospital, the officers locked him in solitary confinement. They then conspired to conceal the beating by cleaning up the blood and falsifying records to make it appear that the inmate had attacked a guard. As part of the cover-up, one guard stuck another with a baton, and then the group photographed the bruises as proof of the attack.

The facts of the case were clearly egregious. But even in cases like this, firing officers is extremely difficult under the union contract, which expired in the spring and is being renegotiated. It requires disciplinary actions by arbitrators who rely on union approval for their jobs and often recommend suspension. In the Downstate case, two of the officers whom the state tried to terminate were given suspensions and sent back to work. One of them has since pleaded guilty to federal charges and is cooperating with the federal government.

Federal prosecutors are looking into a case at another prison — Fishkill Correctional Facility — where Samuel Harrell died last year after a violent encounter with as many as 20 officers. And last year the United States attorney for the Western District of New York opened an investigation into the savage beating of an inmate at Attica Correctional Facility by three officers who pleaded guilty to a state misdemeanor and served no jail time.

Sustained federal pressure will be necessary to rid New York’s prison system of wanton brutality, but that will not be enough unless elected officials and local prosecutors do their parts as well.