Investigation reveals culture of abuse inside New York state prisons

An investigation by the Marshall Project and the New York Times sheds light on an alarming culture of abuse inside New York state prisons. A review of officer disciplinary records found hundreds of incidents of abuse and mistreatment, and a widespread failure to hold guards accountable. Geoff Bennett discussed the report with Alysia Santo of the Marshall Project.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    A new investigation by The Marshall Project and The New York Times sheds light on an alarming culture of abuse inside New York state prisons.

    For decades, officer disciplinary records were kept secret from the public in New York state. That was until the year 2020, when lawmakers enacted police reforms in the wake of George Floyd's murder.

    The Marshall Project reviewed those records and found hundreds of incidents of abuse and mistreatment and a widespread failure to hold guards accountable.

    Alysia Santo of The Marshall Project is one of the reporters behind the story. And she joins me now.

    And, Alysia, over the course of your reporting, you spoke with guards, former prison officials, incarcerated people, and you found a culture of abuse. Tell me more about what you discovered.

  • Alysia Santo, The Marshall Project:

    So, we found that, when the Department of Corrections in New York state attempted to fire officers that they accused of abusing people that were in their custody or covering up that abuse, that they only succeeded in actually getting rid of that officer and firing them in about 10 percent of the cases.

    We were really surprised to see such a low rate of success for the state, when the state had found that this abuse had occurred, according to them. In addition, because we were told that this disciplinary database we'd obtained only represented a fraction of the excessive force that occurs in prisons, we also analyzed over 160 lawsuits in which prisoners were awarded damages as a result of their lawsuit.

    And we crosschecked the names of the officers accused in those lawsuits. And we found that, in 80 percent of those cases, the state didn't even attempt to discipline the officers that were accused.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    One incident of abuse and a subsequent cover-up involved a man named Melvin Virgil.

    And we should say that this video we're about to show is fairly graphic. And you got access to body camera footage where you see an officer beat Mr. Virgil multiple times. But despite clear records, photos and video showing guards striking him repeatedly, the officer involved reported that he delivered one strike against Mr. Virgil, and other officers' reports supported that claim.

    Tell us about the specific case and how it fits into the broader culture of abuse that you reported on.

  • Alysia Santo:

    So the attack on Melvin Virgil is unique because there was actually footage of what occurred, which is — I had never seen body camera footage from inside a New York state prison before.

    And this case really illustrated the ways that the officers all basically came together on the same story of what happened, which is clearly contradicted by the video. And that story actually became the official narrative of what had happened in the Melvin Virgil case, which was that he had attacked the officer and just one strike had been used in an attempt to get him under control, and that he had remained combative.

    But, in the video, you actually see him struck six times in the head. And you also see him go unconscious at the moment that the officers claim that he was fighting back against them.

    And another important thing to note here is that Melvin Virgil was sent to solitary confinement for this particular incident, and the officers' cover-up was actually — their story was adopted as the official narrative in the prison of what had actually occurred.

    And this is despite there being video evidence, and despite the officers being allowed to actually watch that video and offered an opportunity to change their reports, which they declined.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Well, when it comes to accountability, you document more than 290 cases where the state tried to fire officers or supervisors who had mistreated prisoners, and, ultimately, just 28 of them were fired.

    What are the barriers preventing the system from holding these officers accountable?

  • Alysia Santo:

    One of the biggest barriers is the unions' contracts.

    So, in New York state, the corrections officers are a part of a very strong union. And this union contract that the state has agreed to has many protections in place. And one of those protections in particular that we have focused on is the arbitration process, which is,an arbitrator gets to decide whether an officer loses their job or not.

    It's not actually up to the prison agency. And we found that arbitrators in abuse cases, they ruled with the officer three-quarters of the time that the state was attempting to fire someone for abuse or for covering up abuse. So, this resulted in a lot of cases where people who the state was trying to fire were put back into their jobs inside of prisons and back in control of other people.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Big-picture question for you as we wrap up our conversation.

    Why should we care about what happens inside prisons? Why should we care about the ways in which prisoners are treated?

  • Alysia Santo:

    Well, prisoners are among our most vulnerable people, because they rely on others for their basic needs and for their safety.

    But people also get out of prison. And so if you don't care about them being in there, maybe you care that they get out, and that the way that they're treated while they're inside, it really could affect how their life goes when they come back into the world that we all inhabit on the outside.

    And then there's also all the people that are affected by that, the families and the friends that love people who are incarcerated, and then all the people that work there, the thousands and thousands of people who endure the stress of knowing that there is a job in which they might encounter something that they think they would want to report, but the culture itself is one in which you're supposed to cover it up and your — maybe your own safety relies on your willingness to cooperate and go along with cover-ups that occur inside of the prison system.

    So, it affects a lot of people. And, for that reason, I think it's really important for everybody to care about.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Alysia Santo of The Marshall Project, thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

  • Alysia Santo:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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