Justice for Samuel Harrell: Prosecute the “Beat Up Squad” at the Fishkill Prison

Samuel Harrell (Photo: courtesy of the Harrell Family)Samuel Harrell (Photo: courtesy of the Harrell Family)A horrifying murder was committed four months ago and despite the killers being known, not a single thing has happened to them. The murder victim was Samuel Harrell, a Black prisoner living with bipolar disorder who was serving time in the Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York. After a mental health episode, in which he announced he was going home despite still having years to serve, officers wrestled him to the floor and handcuffed him. Edwin Pearson, one of at least 19 prisoners who witnessed the incident, has testified that a gang of 20 officers known as the “Beat Up Squad” then arrived and proceeded to punch, kick and jump on Harrell “like he was a trampoline” while yelling racial epithets. The gang then threw Harrell down a flight of stairs, concluding the fatal beating.

One prisoner wrote that Harrell lay at the bottom of the stairs “bent in an impossible position,” adding, “His eyes were open, but they weren’t looking at anything.” Harrell died as a result of this brutal attack, according to Orange County medical examiner’s autopsy report.

Harrell’s family continues to suffer with the loss, especially knowing the horrific abuse that caused his death. Diane Harrell, Samuel’s wife, told Truthout: “I cannot bear the thought of my husband’s last few minutes of life. I cannot help but visualize his beaten body. I know he suffered. I know he felt excruciating pain. I cannot help but wonder what his final thoughts were. I imagine he thought about us, his family.”

Diane Harrell. (Photo: Ignacio Acevedo)Diane Harrell. (Photo: Ignacio Acevedo)Cerissa Harrell, Samuel’s sister, certainly continues to mourn. She stated: “It has been four months and six days since I lost a brother and a friend. There aren’t any words to express the intense feeling of loss I go through every day and every night. I miss him so much … He wasn’t just an inmate. He was a brother, son, grandson, uncle, nephew, cousin and friend to so many people … Ask everyone who knew him: Sam was a gentle soul.” Cerissa added, “Sam’s life was stolen from him. He was only 30 years old. He had so much more life to live.”

Cerissa Harrell. (Photo: Walter Hergt)Cerissa Harrell. (Photo: Ignacio Acevedo)After robbing Harrell of his life, the Beat Up Squad told medics that Samuel died of an overdose. However, this proved to be untrue when the Orange County medical examiner found that there were no illegal drugs in his system, conclusively ruling his death a homicide. Despite this autopsy report and 19 affidavits and letters from prisoners who witnessed the deadly beating, District Attorney William Grady – who is responsible for prosecuting this murder – has let four months go by without pressing homicide charges. Meanwhile, The Beat Up Squad is reportedly still on duty, attacking inmates, throwing them in solitary and threatening prisoners to “forget what you saw here if you ever want to make it home.”

Justice for Samuel Harrell

As a result of this extrajudicial killing going unpunished, Harrell’s family and friends, including Diane and Cerissa, joined the Hudson Valley Black Lives Matter Coalition – made up of individuals from the organizations Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, Community Voices Heard and Citizen Action – to demand justice last week. On Thursday August 27, members of the coalition and family descended on Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady’s office demanding that Grady immediately file homicide charges on the corrections officers who murdered Samuel Harrell.

The group blockaded the District Attorney’s door, expecting the five individuals carrying out acts of civil disobedience to be arrested.

Blockading the DA. (Photo: Rez Ones)Blockading the DA. (Photo: Rez Ones)

However, despite blocking the entrance to the building, a four-way intersection, and finally a three-lane highway for a total of two hours, no arrests were made. It was later confirmed by the group’s police liaison, Blair Goodman, that Grady explicitly instructed officers not to detain anyone. Perhaps arresting them, while letting the Beat Up Squad continue business as usual, was too great of an irony to bear.

Shutting Down an Intersection. (Photo: Rez Ones)Shutting Down an Intersection. (Photo: Rez Ones)

Shutting Down the Highway. (Photo: Rez Ones)Shutting Down the Highway. (Photo: Rez Ones)

The Larger Problem

The Beat Up Squad is not the only gang of abusive corrections officers: Violence by officers in prison is systemic. When incarcerated, one’s chances of committing suicide, being sexually assaulted and being physically assaulted grow significantly. For example, in June, at Clinton, a correctional facility in upstate New York, corrections officers beat prisoners, choked them with plastic bags and threatened to waterboard them. According to an anonymous interview with a prisoner by the Correctional Association of New York, the only private organization in New York with unrestricted access to prisons, at Attica, another New York prison, if a prisoner looks at the corrections officers wrong, “they will beat you” and if you make allegations of sexual assault they will be also beat you. “They do it in the hallways and they stick together,” the inmate said.

Much of this violence disproportionally affects Black prisoners – like Samuel Harrell – who make up 18 percent of the total population, 50 percent of those in prisons and 60 percent of those put in solitary confinement, according to the Correctional Association of New York. According to an anonymous prisoner interviewed by the Correctional Association, “90 percent of the abuse has race at the heart of it; they don’t like Black people plain and simple; most of the guys who are beat up are Black.” In addition to systemic racism, there have been explicitly racist acts carried out by corrections officers in New York State. Specifically, at Attica, corrections officers wore white sheets on their heads pretending they were a part of the Ku Klux Klan during a Christmas celebration, and, “As a part of the act, they have a statute of a Black baby with a noose around its neck hanging on the Christmas tree.”

The violence faced by prisoners is only exacerbated for those with mental illness. According solitarywatch.com, Black people are also disproportionately placed in solitary confinement, which is considered torture, especially for those with mental illness. At Rikers Island 16-year-old Kalief Browder spent approximately two years in solitary confinement, during which he attempted suicide multiple times. He was also starved and beaten by officers over the three years he was kept at Rikers without trial. Kalief never recovered from the physical and mental violence he faced in prison, and he eventually killed himself.

Despite the violence experienced by inmates and documented above, until March 2015 criminal charges had never been broughtagainst correctional officers for a non-sexual assault on a prisoner anywhere in New York. Incarceration is part of the attack on Black life, and in particular on Black people like Samuel Harrell who have mental illnesses. People with a mental illness make up over half the prison population. This statistic is even higher for women who are incarcerated.

Abuse in prisons by corrections officers cannot go unchecked. The issue is systemic and must be addressed as such. By standing up for Samuel Harrell last Thursday, the fight to change this system was carried forward by his family. As Cerissa promised Samuel, “We will not stop fighting until we get you the justice you deserve.” She continued, “We ask the District Attorney to bring charges against the men who murdered my brother. I pray for those who, like me and my family, have lost a loved one at the hands of theauthorities. No one should have to endure such pain. We will keep fighting until no one else will.”

Cerissa Harrell and Diane Harrel. (Photo: Rez Ones)Cerissa Harrell and Diane Harrel. (Photo: Rez Ones)

Because Black Lives Matter and because Black Prisoners Matter, the Hudson Valley Black Lives Matter Coalition will continue to fight in solidarity with Cerissa and Diane Harrell until #justiceforsamuelharrell is won. Just hours after the action last Thursday, the US attorney for the Southern District, Preet Bharara, announced that his office will join the investigation into Harrell’s death. Hopefully this means Harrell’s case will be taken seriously, bringing the larger issue of prisons as violent institutions into the spotlight.