Similar to police officers on the streets, violence between guards in jails and prisons is a crucial problem that has gone from brutality to outright homicide. As is the case with police violence, African Americans and other people of color are disproportionately the victims of abuse at the hands of prison and jail officials.
Last week, the shocking video footage of Darius Robinson’s April 4, 2016 death while in police custody was released. The 41-year-old father of seven was being held on charges of failure to pay child support when he apparently experienced a mental meltdown. He reportedly tore up paper and walked about his cell waving a blanket. In the video, Robinson can be seen sitting on a bench, two guards in front of him. Robinson appeared to lean or step forward when one of the guards, Allen Smith, struggled with Robinson and the other guard, Vicki Richardson, sprayed Robinson with pepper spray. Both men fell to the ground and struggled when Smith choked Robinson until he was all but motionless.
Smith continued to use the chokehold well beyond the point where Robinson was subdued and while Richardson handcuffs him. After cuffing him, the guards roll Robinson onto his back and quickly realize that he is nonresponsive. Richardson gives him two chest compressions after she apparently is unable to find a pulse. Robinson briefly stirs before convulsing and, ultimately, choking to death.
The autopsy determined that Robinson’s death was a “homicide by asphyxiation from the manual compression of his neck.” Nonetheless, Smith has yet to be charged with any crime.
About a year earlier, in a New York State prison, Samuel Harrell also died at the hands of guards when he packed his bags and decided that it was time to go home — even though he had years to left to serve. (Harrell had bipolar disorder and sometimes behaved erratically.) The guards reportedly threw Harrell to the ground and cuffed him. Up to 20 guards reportedly kicked and punched Harrell, before throwing him down a flight of stairs, according to accounts from inmates. An ambulance was called and the guards told paramedics that Harrell likely overdosed on synthetic marijuana — never mentioning the beating. An autopsy revealed that Harrell died of a cardiac arrhythmia “following physical altercation with corrections officers.” (There were no illegal drugs found in his system.) His death was ruled a homicide.
The week before Harrell’s murder, guards at another New York State prison, in haunting similarity to Taylor, allegedly beat Karl Taylor to death. More than a year later, no charges have been filed against the guards involved in Mr. Taylor’s or Mr. Harrell’s deaths. Prison officials have not taken any disciplinary action against them and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYS DOCCS) has not even filed a report on either death.
These are just three examples of the rampant abuse of people who are incarcerated. In fact, there are numerous cases of people in New York who have been brutally beaten and/or killed by guards. The guards have all gone unpunished by authorities, often protected by their coworkers, union, police and even district attorneys. And NYS DOCCS, often impeded by the union contract, has exacerbated the harm by failing to take appropriate action in these cases.
Black Lives Matter behind bars, too. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) needs to step up and step in to protect incarcerated people. Here in New York State, the DOJ should immediately review the countless deaths in state prisons.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo needs to do a complete overhaul of the corrections system, and he needs to include community members in the process, giving those impacted by the criminal justice system input into hiring practices and oversight.
Until we have collaboration with communities — especially communities of color — prison and jail guards will continue to go rogue. Without repercussions, they will continue to brutalize and kill people, and engage in cover-ups.
We have to reject the violence perpetrated by guards. We must demand justice for all, including those who are incarcerated. If we continue to look away while people are abused in custody, then we too will have blood on our hands.
J. Soffiya Elijah is the executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice. Follow her on Twitter @SoffiyaElijah.