Who's Lying Now and Who Cares? Convicted Felons or Un-convicted Prison Guards?

We won't move all that much in terms of our human climate, until we realize that our cruelty, through being an active participant or a bystander, transforms us for the worse. Dehumanizing prisoners dehumanizes us all.
08/21/2015 09:31 am ET Updated Aug 21, 2016

About twenty years ago a good friend of mine did a stint in a forensics ward of a psychiatric unit in Brooklyn. She was planning to become a psychiatrist and felt that doing something "on the ground" would make for a good start. She was wrong, she told me about six months later when she told me she was quitting. She couldn't stand the arbitrariness of so much of it, she said. She was seeing so many people, who for the mistakes and misjudgments of seconds and minutes had ruined their lives. She couldn't stand the way they were treated either, even though she realized that the other aides who seemed cynical and at times mocking and gruff, were also on edge from the pressures of being in the midst of negativity, and who watched as chances for a real life for these inmates were dwindling. She hoped she would have a more purposeful and hopeful experience out of a forensic setting. She told me she felt lucky she could leave. However, it seems that for prisoners, with and without mental health issues, the stakes including the sense of unabated futility mixed with various kinds of torture are remaining chronic and often fatal.

In the New York Times piece of August 18, 2015, entitled, "Prison Guard 'Beat Up Squad' Is Blamed in New York Inmate's Death", by Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtzau, there is but another set of descriptions of circumstances that lead the reader to believe that a prisoner died at the hands of guards. In addition it seems the system has thus far been prejudiced against the validity of testimony on the part of prisoners, who can be seen as unreliable, given their status: of prisoners and often enough of convicted felons. But here there is another question: whether being a convicted felon makes one guilty of lying about brutality while in prison.

The articles and investigations are piling up, but there has been a distinct lack of swift or thorough action, that would have to involve a revamping of policies, of supervision, of training and accountability. Cruelty breeds cruelty, as abuse breeds abuse, as hurt people hurt people. And yet, while we consider it astounding and unwieldy and unconscionable when white children bully other white children, we have allowed crime to swallow poorer and darker neighborhoods whole for what seems like forever. And we let people who may have lost their chances for a life outside, through misfortune, bad judgment, untamed aggression and often enough mental illness as well, be subject to enough intense brutality as to either resort to suicidal action or succumb to fatal injuries after a beating.

I understand a reader of such articles turning away from the page. We yearn for facts about investigative reporting when they feed our hunger for action and even shock, but we often lose patience when it comes to the more sober issues of what to do. We don't tend to rally for dead prisoners in the same way that we might for a young man who was killed by the police when he was unarmed. We don't quite tend to see prisoners as human, and when we read about the raw brutality between prisoners and guards, perhaps it makes us want to turn away from the whole dynamic--it's too awful in a way.

Samuel Harrell, on a night in April at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York State, announced that he had packed his bags and was going home. He still had years to serve on a drug sentence, but he also suffered from bipolar disorder, which in his case included delusions. Yes, he was black, and although it didn't have to be that way, it was as it often is. He was handcuffed and according to as many as 10 witnesses, he was kicked and punched by as many as 20 officers, officers known as belonging as what is referred to as the "Beat Up Squad". One witness, an inmate who agreed to be identified, is Edwin Pearson said, "Like he was a trampoline, they were jumping on him". According to witnesses he was thrown or dragged down a staircase, and the bottom line is that help was called for, without any mention of actual violence, and that Mr. Harrell died.

As a mental health practitioner, I find it obligatory to say that when we stand by torture, whether as psychologists in enhanced interrogations, mental health personnel who know about this and says nothing, or mental health practitioners who know about serious abuse, we are obliged to say something. Most of us are in fact mandated reporters, in other words we are obligated by law to say something when we see something related to potential threats and actual harm. The prisoners I have been hearing about more and more (I confess I may be more open to listening) are no less human than any of us. Even if some of the harsher among us have been taught to believe that we are all responsible for our destinies, the truth is that circumstances that include temperament, economics, biology and environment, all play a part.

Is Bernie Sanders savvy enough about race to be viable or approximately so? Is Hillary too deeply enmeshed with her email system, and her husband, to be viable herself? Is any Republican sane enough to attract a broad spectrum of voters? These are all good questions, and perhaps it's oxymoronic to ask if this issue, of prisoners getting beaten and tortured to death can have a place on any campaign at all. The rule of thumb is that a group or an issue has to be economically and socially significant in terms of investments and votes, to make a difference.

Product warning: We won't move all that much in terms of our human climate, until we realize that our cruelty, through being an active participant or a bystander, transforms us for the worse. Dehumanizing prisoners dehumanizes us all.