What Happened To Samuel Harrell? The New York Inmate's Death Demands An Investigation And Prison Reform

The Correctional Association (CA) of New York, a prisoner advocacy organization, released a statement on Tuesday calling for a Department of Justice investigation into the April death of a 30-year-old black inmate named Samuel Harrell. The statement came shortly after a New York Times article provided an in-depth look at what happened to Samuel Harrell and cited an autopsy report indicating that the manner of Harrell's death was homicide.

The CA's full statement urges the DOJ to open a full investigation of both Harrell's death and the widespread violence in the New York prison system.

The CA once again condemns the pervasive culture of violence and abuse perpetrated by [Department of Corrections and Community Supervision] staff and the attempted cover-up – this time at Fishkill. The homicide of 30-year-old Samuel Harrell on April 21, 2015 by Fishkill prison guards is a reminder that the entire prison system is out of control and irreparably broken.

The Times reported that on the evening of April 21, Harrell — who was serving out a sentence at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York for drug charges — announced that he was going home, despite having several years left on his sentence. Shortly thereafter, a group of up to 20 corrections officers, some of whom were known by prisoners as the "Beat Up Squad," reportedly threw Harrell to the floor, handcuffed him, kicked and punched him and, according to numerous inmate witnesses, shouted racial slurs at him.

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Then, according to the inmates' accounts, Harrell was allegedly either thrown or dragged down a staircase, and one inmate reported seeing Harrell's body "bent in an impossible position" on the landing. The officers proceeded to call an ambulance, but when paramedics arrived on the scene, officers suggested that Harrell had died from an overdose of synthetic marijuana, rather than as a result of the violent encounter.

Since 2002, Harrell had served multiple stints in prison for drug-related crimes and had five "disciplinary infractions" over the course of this period, but none of them involved violence, according to the Times. Medical records indicate that Harrell was hospitalized for bipolar disorder in 2010, and the autopsy results indicated that a history of heart disease and drug abuse were contributors to his death.

But Fishkill's Building 21, where Harrell died, has a history of violence, according to the Times. In 2013, the CA released a report documenting the violence committed by the officers who worked in this building from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. — the same time frame during which Harrell died. But even though this violence has been publicly documented, it persists, according to many of the inmates. Several of them described being placed in solitary confinement after talking to Harrell's family, lawyers, and the media, while none of the officers involved in the attack on Harrell have been punished. With so much attention put on the treatment of black men both in public and behind bars, it's just another example of how much reform is needed.