As a result of the deteriorating conditions in New York City’s jails, day-long hearings have been held, national media attention has been drawn to the issue, and repeated requests have been made for Rikers Island to be closed. Violence, deaths, suicides, and attempted suicides have all increased in the jails, as have heat waves without proper cooling and restricted access to basic services, such as medical and mental health treatment, among other things.
Conditions in many of New York’s upstate prisons, which collectively housed nearly 32,000 people, more than five times the population of New York City’s jails as of October 1, are just as bad in each of these areas, despite the fact that they receive only a fraction of the attention from either oversight agencies or the media.
Great Meadow Correctional Facility
One particular prison stands out in this regard. According to the most recent available statistics, Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security facility in Washington County, has the highest rate of suicides of any New York prison, as well as the highest rate of suicide attempts, the highest rate of self-harm, and one of the highest rates of recorded staff violence.
When it comes to several of these indicators, the numbers suggest a problem at Great Meadow that is even more concerning than the one at Rikers Island. The increase in self-harm in New York City jails has gotten a lot of attention, with up to 95 instances per 1,000 inmates attracting a lot of attention. According to the most recent available data, Great Meadow’s rate is more than 50 percent higher than the national average, at 155 per 1,000 people.
According to prisoners and personnel from monitoring organizations who have visited the jail in recent months, the institution has witnessed near-daily assaults on prisoners by guards, inadequate protection from excessive heat, and persistent medical negligence. According to many convicts and their family members who spoke to the New York Focus and The Nation, when prisoners do disclose these abuses, their grievances are rarely taken into consideration. Many people choose to remain silent for fear of retaliation.
“I will put it to you like this.” “You see how police are killing people outside and get away with it? Everything is the same as before, but now it is worse.”Gerard Bastien, who is currently detained at Great Meadow
Due in large part to mobile phone footage and social media, police violence has garnered a constant amount of attention and anger in recent years. In contrast, when similar atrocities occur within the confines of a prison, there are no outside cameras to film them.
During the summer, Bastien was housed in the prison’s “keeplock” unit, which confines around 80 inmates to their cells for 23 hours each day as punishment for breaking the rules. For example, he claims he witnessed five violent assaults in his unit alone over the course of a month. Most of the beatings he described were carried out by a large number of guards at the same time.
His cell door had a little glass, through which he could see several of them. When he was given an hour of recreation time, which under keeplock is spent in a one-person cage, he witnessed an assault, which he reported to the authorities. “He was bleeding badly on his face and his left eye was closed up,” he recalled witnessing three jail officers accompanying another prisoner. He went on to say that the males that were assaulted were all of African descent.
When asked about reports of mass beatings by guards, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) stated that:
all allegations of inappropriate use of force are “promptly and carefully” investigated by the department’s Office of Special Investigations, and that staff members who are found to have committed misconduct are disciplined or criminally prosecuted if they are found to have committed misconduct.
There is a scarcity of information about the problem: The Department of Corrections and Community Safety (DOCCS) records incidents involving “uses of force” by its employees in its Unusual Incident Reports; however, these reports do not reflect the total number of uses of force, and the most recent report only includes incidents that occurred between 2015 and 2016.
Use of Force
These are hardly the first reports of mass beatings in a New York state jail, and they are far from the most serious. According to one example, the state paid $5 million and agreed to install video cameras and microphones at another maximum-security prison in upstate New York after a civil trial during which witnesses claimed that numerous guards were responsible for the killing of 51-year-old Karl Taylor in 2013. People detained at Great Meadow, on the other hand, report that violence is particularly widespread at the facility.
“This prison is the worst prison in the state of New York,” Bastien stated emphatically.
“The Garbage Heap of the State Prison System,” as one critic put it.
Located in Washington County, approximately 60 miles northeast of Albany, Great Meadow’s expansive nine-acre site is protected by a 24-foot perimeter wall. The county has a predominance of white residents, whereas the majority of inmates imprisoned at Great Meadow are black, with another quarter being Latino or other races.
The “Hands On” Facility
Violence and abuse have been a part of the prison’s history for a long time. A critical report produced by the State Commission of Correction, a state monitoring agency, in 1976, following three near-riots at Great Meadow Prison, cited 91 complaints from males imprisoned there over a five-month period. According to the commission, the jail was the most volatile, earning it the nickname “the garbage heap of the state prison system” for its unruly behavior.
After 45 years, those who are familiar with Great Meadow report that the situation has not improved at all.
“The reputation of Great Meadow is that it’s a ‘hands-on’ facility and is among one of the more punitive prisons in the state,” “There’s a culture of deprivation and a lack of incentive to do well.”said Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit monitoring organization.
The significant proportion of persons incarcerated who suffer from mental illnesses is another link between headline-grabbing police violence and often-overlooked prison violence. In November 2020, more than 40% of the prison’s 1,347 inmates were on the prison’s mental health caseload, and it housed the state’s only behavioral health unit, which is a contributing factor to the high rates of violence at Great Meadow, according to prison watchdogs.
Mental Health and Death inside of Great Meadow
Scaife claims that guards are undertrained in dealing with those who are facing mental health crises or who are suffering from mental illness. “That’s another dangerous combination that results in dangerous situations like what happened with John McMillon,” she said, referring to the death in 2019 of a 67-year-old prisoner who had long struggled with anxiety, schizophrenia, epilepsy, and substance abuse.
Despite the fact that McMillon’s official autopsy determined that he died of a heart attack, other detainees told investigators that he had been violently beaten by several guards less than two hours before his death. DOCCS categorically refuted this claim, describing it as “a blatant abdication of the truth.”
Officer Thomas Mailey of the Department of Correctional Services (DOCCS) stated that guards assigned to the Great Meadow’s mental health programs undergo 16 hours of mental health training per year, as well as two additional hours of suicide prevention training. That’s it.
On the other hand, the unit has had higher incidence of guard aggression than other areas of the facility. In 2016, the unit housed only 2 percent of the prison’s total population, but it was the site of 15 percent of all recorded use of force by Great Meadow’s personnel.
According to data collected through information requests, the jail-issued 245 violations for attack on guards between 2017 and 2019, the highest amount in the state’s 52-prison system, and a total of 1,852 infractions for violent conduct by convicts between 2017 and 2019.
Scaife attributed the high amount of aggressive behavior to the prison’s culture, which he described as “unique.” “I don’t think that’s a naturally occurring phenomenon,” she said. “There are certain conditions created at that prison due to its punitive culture, paramilitary organization of the (guards), and the relative lack of opportunities for programs, recreation, and other positive activities.”
The State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, a labor union that represents state prison guards, did not answer to questions concerning the rate of violence at Great Meadow State Correctional Institution.
Since his initial incarceration in 2001, Rondell Purnell has spent time in seven different prisons. The worst part of his stay at Great Meadow in 2016 was the treatment he received from the staff, according to him: “The worst treatment I’ve ever encountered.”
Every table at Great Meadow’s chow hall has four seats, according to Purnell, and each of those seats must be filled before guests can continue sitting at the next table.
Purnell made an unintentional violation of this rule on March 26, 2016. “I didn’t get a seat and ended up sitting at the next table, where I ended up starting a whole ‘nother table,” he remembered. Purnell was reprimanded by a prison guard, according to him, and he consented to switch seats.
Purnell, on the other hand, claims that when he exited the meal hall, a guard dragged him out of the line and into an area near the stairs.
“The last thing I remembered, I was standing against the wall for a pat search,” Purnell said. “I woke up in handcuffs, under the staircase,” says the author. He couldn’t open or see out of his right eye, and he could only see a sliver of what was in his left.
The guard wrote him up, stating that Purnell had struck him twice and that “force became necessary to prevent further serious assault on my person.” Purnell was treated by medical personnel that afternoon, and they discovered a laceration in his left brow, bruises on his left shoulder, and swelling in his right cheekbone and eye socket, among other injuries. It was determined that his injuries were severe enough that he needed to be taken to a nearby hospital by ambulance.
Ultimately, Purnell said, he had six stitches in his left eye as well as reconstructive surgery on the right side of his face to heal. He was taken to a hospital for treatment. Following his discharge, he was moved to the Upstate Correctional Facility and placed in solitary confinement, where he remained for the next eight months as a result of the guard’s report.
Purnell filed a grievance, which is the equivalent of an internal prison complaint, regarding the assault. When asked about meeting with him by someone from the Office of Special Investigations, he said that the meeting took place in his absence, and that the hearing took place in his absence. Purnell received a letter in the mail informing him that his grievance had been rejected.
He filed an appeal and, about ten months later, received a letter from the Department of Children and Families’ Central Office Review Committee. In the letter, according to Purnell, the investigators agreed with his complaints in part—namely, that he had incurred injuries—but they did not agree with his description of how he had received them.
Purnell has filed a notice of intent to bring a lawsuit and is currently in the process of contacting counsel to represent him in the proceedings.
Purnell believes that if he hadn’t been transferred to another jail, he would have been forced to choose between informally resolving and withdrawing his grievance (“signing off” on it) and facing retaliation from guards. “It’s either sign off or get beaten up!” he declared at Great Meadow.
Several convicts and their family members have stated that guard retaliation against prisoners who disclose mistreatment is common at Great Meadow Correctional Facility.
Tracy, whose name has been changed in this account, paid a visit to her husband, who is also a prisoner at Great Meadow, the morning following McMillion’s death in 2019. She recalled that he seemed jittery and agitated.
“He told me he witnessed the guards kill someone,” she said. “He was concerned that they would retaliate against him because he had testified.”
Their visit came to an end around 3 p.m. Tracy’s husband usually phones her at 5 p.m. after each visit to ensure that she has returned safely. That evening, her phone didn’t ring until eight o’clock. After she had departed, she was informed by another prisoner that prison officers had attacked and whisked away her husband, who had remained in the prison’s sight.
Tracy later discovered that her husband had been thrown in solitary confinement, where he would not be able to communicate with her for a period of two weeks. Other guys who had seen him at sick call called to tell her that he had swollen lips and reddish eyes and that she should call the doctor. Following his recovery from his ordeal, his wife learned that many guards had beaten him before placing him in solitary confinement on the grounds that she had transferred drugs to him during their visit. (He was later exonerated of those charges following an internal investigation.)
Prisoners in all state prisons have the right to register formal complaints regarding prison conditions, including guard misconduct.
Despite having one of the highest rates of guard aggression in the country, Great Meadow had the second-lowest number of complaints regarding guard misconduct in 2019, with only 52 complaints. Several people detained there have said that this is due to the fact that their problems are simply not documented. “All of our grievances are disposed of and never processed when we write them up,” said Davide Coggins, who noted that he has filed multiple grievances about the prison’s lack of accommodation for his medical disability for over a year.
“Grievances are a joke,” stated. “When it’s on one of them, you’d be lucky if it made it through. We try and try again, but there is nothing we can do about it. “Tranelle Drake, a Great Meadow employee who has been there since March 2020,
People imprisoned at Great Meadow have made similar complaints about the grievance system, which has been heard by Correctional Association employees. The feeling that people get while trying to find services for something that has happened to them inappropriately is described by Scaife as “screaming into a canyon,” he said.
As COVID-19 has raged on, it has become clear that violence is not the only thing that can go wrong at Great Meadows. Since the Department of Community and Social Services began testing in 2020, Great Meadow has had 170 verified COVID-19 cases, accounting for 13.4 percent of the population. Guards, according to Drake and Bastien, continue to be lackadaisical regarding safety protocols.
They claim that guards have routinely refused to wear masks. The prison’s unclean environment only serve to exacerbate the situation. “You have birds that fly around in here all day,” Drake said earlier this year in interviews with New York Focus and The Nation. “Pee and feces all over the floors, and the radiators—the heat’s barely on while it’s freezing out. You got broken windows all through it. It’s filthy.”
Suicide and Hell
Three prison suicides occurred at Great Meadows between November 2019 and December 2020, accounting for 14 total suicides in state prisons during that time period. Great Meadow Prison, with a population of only 4.3 percent of the total prison population, was also home to roughly 20 percent of the system’s suicide attempts and 12 percent of its self-harm occurrences.
Scaife and the Correctional Association paid a visit to Great Meadow in late June 2021 because they were concerned about the data. Even though it was suffocating outside (temperatures hovered around 91 degrees), security officers refused to open the windows.
As Scaife recalled, one of the visitors ignited a fire in his cell while trying to get the windows of his cellblock unlocked, which resulted in the death of one of the inmates. “That is the length that people will go to get their most basic needs met,” she said.
The violence, the suicides, the self-harm, the dirt, the heat, and the neglect all contribute to a way of life that Bastien described as “almost unbearable.” “Enough is enough,” he declared emphatically. “The world needs to know what is happening inside Great Meadow.”