The racism can be felt from the moment black inmates enter New York’s upstate prisons.
They describe being called porch monkeys, spear chuckers and worse. There are cases of guards ripping out dreadlocks. One inmate, John Richard, reported that he was jumped at Clinton Correctional Facility by a guard who threatened to “serve up some black mashed potatoes with tomato sauce.”
“As soon as you come through receiving, they let you know whose house it is,” said Darius Horton, who was recently released from Groveland Correctional Facility after serving six years for assault.
Most forbidding are the maximum-security penitentiaries — Attica, Clinton, Great Meadow — in rural areas where the population is almost entirely white and nearly every officer is too. The guards who work these cellblocks rarely get to know a black person who is not behind bars.
Whether loud and vulgar or insinuated and masked, racial bias in the state prison system is a fact of life.
It is also measurable.
A review by The New York Times of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions found that racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.
In most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites — in some cases twice as often, the analysis found. They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations. At Clinton, a prison near the Canadian border where only one of the 998 guards is African-American, black inmates were nearly four times as likely to be sent to isolation as whites, and they were held there for an average of 125 days, compared with 90 days for whites.
A greater share of black inmates are in prison for violent offenses, and minority inmates are disproportionately younger, factors that could explain why an inmate would be more likely to break prison rules, state officials said. But even after accounting for these elements, the disparities in discipline persisted, The Times found.
The disparities were often greatest for infractions that gave discretion to officers, like disobeying a direct order. In these cases, the officer has a high degree of latitude to determine whether a rule is broken and does not need to produce physical evidence. The disparities were often smaller, according to the Times analysis, for violations that required physical evidence, like possession of contraband.
Blacks make up only 14 percent of the state’s population but almost half its prisoners. Racial inequities at the front end of the criminal justice system — arrest, conviction and sentencing — have been well documented.
The degree of racial inequity and its impact in the prison system as documented by The Times have rarely, if ever, been investigated. Nor are these issues systematically tracked by state officials. But for black inmates, what happens inside can be profoundly damaging.
Bias in prison discipline has a ripple effect — it prevents access to jobs and to educational and therapeutic programs, diminishing an inmate’s chances of being paroled. And each denial is likely to mean two more years behind bars.
A Times analysis of first-time hearings before the state Board of Parole over a three-year period ending in May found that one in four white inmates was released but fewer than one in six black inmates were.
Even well-run prisons are dangerous. There are more than 50,000 inmates doing time at 54 prisons around the state for a range of crimes, from petty theft to multiple murders. Many interviewed by The Times, like Ibrahim Gyang, who is serving 25 years to life for killing a gang rival, were confined at maximum-security prisons. He acknowledged that inmates needed guards to keep order and protect them from being preyed on by the most violent among them.
“I just want the system to follow the rules,” he said.
Presented with The Times’ findings, officials from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said that while there were racial issues in any large organization, these had little impact on the disciplinary system in the prisons.
“With an agency of close to 30,000 staff, the vast majority of our workforce understand that it is a challenging job, and they approach it professionally,” Tom Mailey, the department spokesman, said in a statement.
The agency said some racial disparities, like why black inmates spent more time in solitary confinement than whites, could be explained by data The Times did not have access to — most important, prisoners’ full disciplinary histories.
But the department provided no data to contradict The Times’ findings of a systemwide imbalance in discipline.
In July, Chavelo Borden, who is serving a six-year sentence for robbery, met with reporters in the visiting room at Clinton, where guards had hung a sign saying “All Lives Matter.” Borden said he and other black prisoners at Clinton were treated “like we’re another species.”
“They don’t see us with pristine eyes,” he said.
Many of the racial problems in the New York’s prisons stem from a fundamental upstate-downstate culture clash that plays out daily on the cellblocks.
The largely white workforce comes from places in northern, western and central New York like Elmira, Malone, Rome and Utica. These are some of the state’s poorer and less diverse communities, where, even as far north as the Canadian border, a Confederate flag can be spotted on the back of a pickup truck or hanging from a front porch. Inmates refer to some of the big maximum-security facilities as “family prisons,” where members of the same family have worked for generations. In these communities, prisons are often seen as political spoils, fiercely protected by upstate politicians for the jobs they provide.
With the disappearance of manufacturing upstate, prisons provide many of the middle-class jobs factories once did. They are fueled by a steady supply of inmates, mostly black or Latino, who are shipped north, far from the urban areas where they grew up. More than half the state’s inmates are from New York City or its suburbs.
Blacks and whites are treated more equitably in some of the prisons close to the city, including Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, less than an hour by train from Grand Central Terminal.
Black officers make up the majority of the uniformed staff there, setting it apart from every other men’s prison in the state. There were no disciplinary disparities between whites and blacks at Sing Sing, according to a Times review of the 1,286 violations issued to inmates there for breaking prison rules.
Inmates interviewed at prisons around the state said that if they had to do time in a maximum-security facility, Sing Sing would be the best place.
“Everyone wants to get to Sing Sing,” said Justin Shaw, an inmate who was doing time for criminal possession of a weapon.
Gyang said, “It’s coveted.”
The Story in Numbers
On the cellblocks, it is a foregone conclusion that the disciplinary system is rigged.
The uniformed staff is given almost total control over the process. Corrections officers make the charges — issuing “tickets,” in prison parlance — and hearing officers, typically sergeants, lieutenants or captains, determine guilt and decide punishment. Inmates almost always lose. At disciplinary hearings, inmates won only about 4 percent of the cases in 2015, according to the department.
The Times analyzed 59,354 disciplinary cases from last year. Systemwide, black inmates were 30 percent more likely to get a disciplinary ticket than white inmates. And they were 65 percent more likely to be sent to solitary confinement, where they are held in a cell 23 hours a day.
Last year, black inmates got 1,144 tickets that resulted in 180 or more days in isolation; white inmates received 226 tickets that had similarly long sentences.
Department officials said there were marked improvements in the past few years, thanks to a settlement the state had signed with the New York Civil Liberties Union that brought in a federal expert to oversee efforts aimed at reducing the use of solitary confinement. Between April 2014 and October of this year, the share of solitary prisoners who were African-American had decreased to 57 percent, from 64 percent, said Mailey, the department spokesman.
Taylor Pendergrass, the lead New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer in the settlement, said the department was “off to an encouraging start.”
“It will be a major undertaking to unwind decades-long practices and transform the culture of this large organization all the way down to the staff working in the cellblocks,” Pendergrass said.
There has been resistance from the rank and file. In a statement, the New York state Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents guards, said the settlement with the civil liberties union had made the prisons more dangerous.
“The disciplinary system has been weakened in our prisons,” the association said. “Especially given the heavy gang presence and overwhelming increases in violent incidents, appropriate disciplinary measures are needed to maintain order and to protect other inmates, as well as staff.”
Solitary confinement is only one piece of the disciplinary process that had a disparity, The Times found, and it is unclear whether the settlement will affect other elements of the system.
Some of the starkest evidence of bias involves infractions that are vaguely defined and give officers the greatest discretion. Disobeying a direct order by an officer can be as minor as moving too slowly when a guard yells, “Get out of the shower.” It is one of the most subjective prison offenses. For every 100 black prisoners, guards issued 56 violations for disobeying orders, compared with 32 for every 100 whites, according to the analysis.
For smoking and drug offenses, which require physical evidence, white inmates, who make up about a quarter of the prison population, were issued about a third of the tickets.
Inmates have the right to appeal to an outside court and be represented by a lawyer — if they can find one willing to take their case; they almost never do. Of the tens of thousands of inmates who got disciplinary tickets in 2014 and 2015, about 280 were represented by Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, which is financed by the state. If an inmate is lucky enough to have Prisoners’ Legal Services take his case, his odds improve greatly. About two-thirds of the organization’s clients won their appeals — but by then, many had completed their solitary sentence.
Ibrahim Gyang said in an interview that at one of his disciplinary hearings, an officer called as a witness had to reread the ticket because he could not remember the case. And Gyang still lost.
It is not just that blacks fare worse: Whites are more likely to get a break. Both white and black prisoners mention the escape of two murderers from Clinton last year as a prime example of white guards’ tendency to be more trustful of white inmates.
The murderers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, both white, got the tools they needed to cut through walls and piping because of friendships they had developed with an officer and a civilian employee, both white. “A major reason for allowing those inmates to have the latitude that they had was because they had white privilege,” said Joseph Williams, who worked for the corrections department for 47 years and was one of its few black prison superintendents. “We know if he had been black he would have never been given that wide a latitude.”
Markus Barber, a black inmate at Green Haven Correctional Facility, called it “the complexion for the connection.”
Examining One Charge: Assault
On Oct. 23, 2014, at Clinton, John Richard was stopped by Officer Brian Poupore, who took issue with his tinted glasses even though he has vision problems and had a medical permit to wear them, according to department records.
“Monkeys don’t wear glasses,” a sergeant said, according to Richard, who is serving a life sentence for murder.
When Richard refused to remove them, he said, Poupore and several other guards jumped him. In their internal reports, the officers said Richard punched them several times and had to be subdued. After the encounter, Poupore had a minor injury, according to the medical report, while the other officers had none.
The medical report said Richard had bruises all over his body, including his face, under his ear and on his back. He had trouble walking, the report said. His glasses were broken.
He was found guilty of assault and spent the next six months in solitary confinement.
Assault on prison workers may seem like a straightforward infraction, but a closer look reveals a disturbing pattern. There were 1,028 such violations issued in the state system last year. Black men received 61 percent of them, while white men received 9 percent. Under department rules, officers have considerable leeway over what constitutes an assault. An inmate need not cause an injury or even touch an officer.
About 20,000 uniformed officers work in the state’s prisons. During the first half the year, 2,007 of them were involved in assault cases, according to department data, but 98 percent of them had no injuries or only minor ones, which can be as vague as “aches/pain.” Eight officers suffered serious injuries, defined as a broken bone or a puncture wound.
The Times reviewed 215 reports of assaults on staff from the first quarter of 2015, obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. The department redacted the officers’ names but not the inmates’. It also redacted most information about injuries, but in several cases, The Times was able to obtain medical records through the prisoners.
Among those reports, the cases of three black inmates — Darius Horton, Paul Sellers and Justin Shaw — followed the same pattern: All were involved in seemingly trivial disagreements with guards that led to minor altercations. And while it is hard to know who was responsible for escalating the episodes, the officers were not injured and remained on duty, while the inmates were punished with long stints in isolation.
Sellers was returning from dinner at Five Points Correctional Facility when he was stopped by an officer for taking “a loaf of state bread” back to his cell, according to the guard’s report. “Surrender the bread,” the officer ordered. Sellers refused and grabbed the shirt of the officer, who punched him in the face. He was sent to solitary for 166 days.
Shaw was stopped at Washington Correctional Facility because he was “attempting to conceal contraband,” according to the officer’s report. When challenged, “the inmate produced a stack of waffles,” the report said. Shaw was accused of then grabbing the officer’s arm and given a 180-day lockup.
Horton was caught by Officer Michael Stamp at Groveland carrying a bowl of hot water from the microwave for coffee after the common room had closed. The officer ordered Horton to leave it, he refused and they got into a shouting match and bumped shoulders, according to the report. The guard claimed that Horton then punched him. In an interview, Horton denied this, saying he was jumped by Stamp and six other guards. Two of the officers had minor injuries; the other five were unharmed. Horton was sentenced to 270 days in isolation.
How much race figured in these three encounters — if it did at all — is hard to know. The guard in Sellers’ case was Hispanic; in the other two cases, the guards were white. Shaw said the officer might have just been having a bad day. “I don’t like to say everything is race,” he said.
For Horton, there was no doubt that race was at play when, as he told it, he was handcuffed and beaten by seven officers, all of them white.
“They took me out there and beat me like I got caught drinking at the whites-only fountain,” he said.
The corrections officers’ union encourages members to report even the slightest physical contact as an assault. As the union negotiates a new contract, billboards in the Albany area have shown officers with neck braces, strapped to stretchers. Assaults on staff members have increased in recent years. There were 895 cases recorded in 2015, some involving more than one inmate, compared with 577 in 2010, according to department data. More recently, assaults on staff were down by 16 percent between January and October of this year, compared with the same period last year, the department said.
Union officials did not comment on the racial disparities in discipline that The Times found.
“While facing record high levels of violence and one of the most dangerous work environments in the country, corrections officers conduct themselves with professionalism and integrity to keep our prisons secure and our communities safe,” the union said in a statement.
Inmates claim that officers regularly provoke altercations that are classified as assaults, including taunting them with racial slurs or touching them inappropriately during a pat frisk. The Times’ analysis showed that prisoners charged with failing to comply with a pat-frisk order were also often charged with assault. Overall, black men were punished seven times as often for pat-frisk infractions as white men, and among inmates younger than 25, blacks received 185 tickets, while whites got only 14.
One of the more humiliating abuses inmates describe is known as the “credit card swipe.” Officers order the prisoners to stand against a wall for a pat frisk and then swipe their hands aggressively between their buttocks.
If an inmate is startled and pulls a hand off the wall, the officer has a green light to use force.
Black and Mentally Ill
When a corrections sergeant stopped Rashief Bullock on his way back from breakfast at Attica Correctional Facility in January 2015, it was not for breaking a prison rule. It was because he was acting “erratic” and “fidgety,” the sergeant’s report said.
That should have been no surprise. Bullock, who is serving an eight-year sentence for selling drugs to an undercover police officer, describes himself as “mentally unstable.” Many of his letters home to his father are confused and delusional. In one he wrote, “I haven’t been talking like how I use to because I’ve been hearing voices to much.” In another he asked, “Why do these middle Eastern prostitutes Harass me everyday?”
The sergeant wrote in his report that he conducted a pat frisk and found nothing but then, as they were heading back to his cell, Bullock suddenly punched him in the face with his left fist. Bullock, who is right-handed, denies hitting anyone.
Wherever the truth lies, the incident report makes it clear that no one was hurt and that all six officers involved remained on duty.
Even so, Bullock was found guilty of assaulting an officer and spent six months in solitary confinement. Inmates with mental illness are often the least equipped to handle the stresses of a regimented prison life. They tend to act out more and are disciplined at far higher rates.
Race magnifies their problems. Of the 100 inmates statewide who were sentenced to the most time in solitary last year, more than half were minorities who at some point had been treated in prison mental health programs, according to the Times analysis.
Bullock, 32, has spent long stretches in isolation at six prisons. “I get thrown in the SHU every jail I go to because I can’t control my body,” he said, referring to solitary-confinement cells.
He is what fellow inmates call a “herb,” an easy mark for guards to pick on. Corrections officers “really don’t like me, I think,” he said.
It was the same on the outside. On the evening of Jan. 8, 2009, as plainclothes officers moved in to arrest Bullock on a Staten Island street corner, his friends drove off without him, according to the police report.
For much of the past summer, Bullock was confined to his cell for 23 hours a day after getting a ticket for “being out of place.” Given how psychotic he seemed during two recent interviews in the visiting room at Elmira, it is remarkable that he could follow any of the 120 regulations for which an inmate can be disciplined.
He described a “dimension portal” in Sudan that was a secret entrance to hell; explained that he was from “divine lineage”; and said he communicated with people in their graves, including his relative Alexander the Great.
At the time, he said he was not receiving mental health treatment or taking medication.
Bullock was not sure whether racism had been a factor in his case at Attica — where 96 percent of the officers are white, and only 1 percent black — although he said he had seen it a lot in prison. At Greene Correctional Facility, he said, an officer mocked him for “sweating like a black man at a math contest”; at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, a guard threatened to “beat the black” off him.
During the seven years in prison, he has written scores of letters to his father, Rudy Bullock. Early on, his letters were rational, focused and touching. In May 2012, he asked his father to send him a scientific calculator. Around the same time, he wrote: “Dear Pops, I wish I was home and we were going to the movies or a restaurant. I hate jail a lot. So many colored folks in jail, if I was rich I know I could of beat this case.”
But in July of that year he wrote: “I’M GOING THROUGH TO MUCH DEPRESSION. I CAN’T HANDLE THIS MUCH LONGER!” And that November: “My mental health is going horrible in here and it’s detiriating fast from being isolated in my room all day.”
“Being in the box,” he wrote in September 2014, “I have been undergoing unsurmountable stress.”
Bullock is doing a 90-day solitary sentence at Five Points for disobeying a direct order. He is scheduled to leave isolation on Christmas.
Paths to Improvement
No other prison in the state is like Sing Sing. Of the 686 uniformed staff members there, 83 percent are black or Latino, compared with 17 percent for the entire state prison system.
Reggie Edwards, who is serving 25 years to life for murder, said Sing Sing’s guards were often from the same neighborhoods as the inmates. Edwards said the white guards knew city life and were more likely to have black or Hispanic friends.
“They identify with us,” he said. “They see things from our perspective.”
Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of the Osborne Association, an inmate advocacy group, said guards at Sing Sing “see the men as less ‘foreign.'”
The disciplinary disparities in most of the other prisons do not exist at Sing Sing. Black inmates make up 57 percent of the population there and get 58 percent of the tickets.
Guards write fewer disciplinary tickets there than they do at most other maximum-security prisons. In 2015, there were 27 tickets given for assault on staff at Sing Sing, compared with 91 at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison of similar size in Comstock.
“It relieves so much stress being in one of those jails down there with all those black people,” Rashief Bullock wrote in one of his letters to his father. Being that close to home, he wrote, he could pick up Hot 97, the New York City hip-hop radio station, in his cell.
Because Sing Sing is so close to the city, with major nonprofits like the Fortune Society and the Osborne Association nearby, it has more programs than most state prisons. Inmates can get a college degree and participate in theater and art initiatives.
Sing Sing also receives more family visits annually than any other prison in the state, the department said.
For these reasons, Sing Sing is used by the corrections department as a reward for inmates with good records at other prisons.
At a graduation ceremony in mid-October, 68 men received certificates for completing a four-month parenting and relationships course as wives, girlfriends, parents and children rose for one standing ovation after another.
One woman in the audience, Joyce Newell, a nurse’s aide, said that when her son was at Clinton, 300 miles north of the city, she would have to catch a bus from the Bronx at 11:30 on Friday nights to be there in time for visiting hours Saturday morning. She would arrive back in the Bronx at 2 a.m. Sunday and then take a subway to her apartment. Now that her son is at Sing Sing, the trip takes her half an hour. “I visit him every week on my day off,” she said.
Sing Sing can still be brutal. One assault case examined by The Times involved an inmate named James Wright, who was released last year after completing a five-year robbery sentence. Wright argued with a guard, was pushed against a wall and subdued by four other officers, according to the incident report. The guards had no injuries; Wright’s two front teeth were knocked out.
And still, when asked if the prisons farther upstate were worse for black inmates, Wright answered, “Absolutely.”
There is evidence that the inequitable treatment of blacks in state prisons has been going on for decades. In 1993, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, a federal judge ordered the state to correct disparities at Elmira. Based on a detailed statistical analysis, the judge, David Larimer, concluded that black inmates were assigned the worst prison jobs, housed on the most decrepit cellblocks and disciplined out of proportion to their numbers.
In a ruling meant to correct these imbalances, Larimer mandated quotas to ensure that black prisoners would get a fair share of the good jobs and housing on preferred cellblocks. Those quotas remain in place. To this day, the Prisoners’ Rights Project receives regular reports from the corrections department listing the number of Elmira inmates by race for the most desired jobs and housing blocks.
At the time, Legal Aid also asked that discipline be monitored for racial disparities, but the state resisted.
John Boston, the lead lawyer for the prisoners, warned in court that without such monitoring, black inmates would continue to be singled out disproportionately for punishment. “Once everybody’s head is turned and we all move on to something else, the problem is likely to reassert itself,” he said at the time.
That is exactly what happened. After more than two decades, disparities in housing and jobs at Elmira have largely disappeared. But as The Times’ analysis showed, discipline in Elmira is still as racially skewed now as it was in the 1980s, with black inmates punished at about twice the rate of whites.
Bias Against Guards
It is not just black inmates who suffer harassment at the hands of white guards.
In the early 2000s, a group of white officers and supervisors relentlessly taunted and abused Curtis Brown, one of the few black guards at Elmira. According to documents from an investigation by the corrections department’s affirmative-action office, the white officers wrote “Token” on his locker, and someone attached a picture of a disheveled black man to his timecard and wrote, “This is your black ass nigger brother.”
While Brown was serving in the honor guard at a funeral for a fellow officer, a corrections lieutenant, George Martin, came up to him and said, “I didn’t know they let niggers in here,” investigators reported. And at a local hockey game that Brown was attending with his family, Officer Nicolo Marino said to another white guard who was present, “I see you brought your inmate porter with you,” according to a state investigation.
In a federal lawsuit filed by Brown, he said that another guard once came up behind him and wrapped a chain around his neck as if it were a lynching. The suit was settled in 2009 for an undisclosed amount.
A white guard who stood up for Brown was also targeted. The guard, Quentin Halm, reported in an affidavit that because they were friends, he was singled out by “bigots and racists.”
One guard said to Halm that if he loved Brown so much, “why don’t you kiss him on his big, fat lips?” Another suggested that he go to “cornrow school with your homey.”
Records from the state comptroller indicate that none of the white guards involved were suspended and that several of them continued to work at Elmira for years after the state affirmative-action investigation. Whether they received some other form of punishment is not known, since state law prohibits the public release of officers’ disciplinary records.
Brown, now in his 28th year on the job, is one of eight black guards at Elmira.
Through the years, the corrections department has made attempts to integrate the workforce at some of the big upstate prisons. In the 1970s and ‘80s, black officers from the Buffalo area were transferred to Attica. While the two communities are just 35 miles apart, Attica sits in the middle of farm fields, in the overwhelmingly white Wyoming County. The new black guards were mercilessly harassed, said Tyrrell Muhammad, who was imprisoned at Attica then and is now a project associate at the Correctional Association, an inmate advocacy group that has a state mandate to monitor conditions in the prisons. Muhammad said black officers were roughed up and humiliated in front of the other guards. Most left, he said.
Even if the department wanted to transfer black officers into the upstate prisons, a seniority provision in the state’s contract with the guards’ union would make that impossible. It is the officers who decide where they work, not the prison superintendents or even the corrections commissioner. The state is negotiating a new contract, but union officials say that seniority rules are not negotiable.
Federal intervention has been one of the few effective means of addressing the racial inequities and civil-rights violations in New York state prisons. It has worked at Elmira for housing and jobs and has been somewhat successful in holding officers accountable for the worst excesses of brutality and discrimination.
On Sept. 21, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that a group of corrections officers at Downstate Correctional Facility, in Fishkill, had been arrested over the brutal beating of Kevin Moore, a black inmate. Moore, 56 at the time, had five broken ribs, a collapsed lung and shattered bones in his face. The guards, who called themselves the Downstate Four, were also accused of ripping out his dreadlocks. One of them even bragged about using the dreadlocks to decorate his motorcycle, the indictment said.
Just as egregious was the cover-up, Bharara said: The officers hit one of their own on the back with a baton to make him appear injured, took several photos for the record and falsified reports claiming that Moore had attacked them, according to the indictment.
“Excessive use of force in prisons, we believe, has reached crisis proportions in New York state,” Bharara said at the news conference.
Like Attica and Clinton, Downstate is a particularly difficult prison for minority inmates, who, in 2015, were more than twice as likely to be disciplined as whites, The Times’ analysis showed. Blacks and Latinos got 1,078 tickets, while whites received 144.
Moore was so badly beaten that he spent 17 days in the hospital.
What happened next is a prime example of why many inmates consider the prison disciplinary system to be a farce.
Moore was issued a ticket for assault on staff and put in solitary confinement after being discharged from the hospital.
It was only when an internal affairs investigator with the corrections department intervened that Moore was let out of isolation and the assault charge was dropped.
By then, he said, he had spent 26 days in solitary confinement. After the officers were indicted, he was transferred out of state custody and moved to an undisclosed location to protect him from possible reprisals by corrections officers.