- Michael Schwirtza reporter for The New York Times. He won a George Polk Award for journalism in 2015 for justice reporting after exposing the abuse of inmates by guards at correction and detention facilities. The Times reports led to resignations and dismissals at Rikers Island, the New York City jail complex, and to a Justice Department lawsuit seeking federal oversight of city jails.
When two prisoners escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, in June, the story dominated national headlines. Little attention was paid to what was going on inside the prison during the search. Though it was prison employees who were implicated in helping the two men escape, The New York Times recently revealed a campaign of retribution was waged against other prisoners. Some were beaten while handcuffed, choked and slammed against cell bars and walls. One prisoner was threatened with waterboarding. We speak to Michael Schwirtz, reporter at The New York Times.
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about your reporting on the Clinton Correctional Facility, the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, after these two prisoners escaped in June, which people all over the country were following, days and days of trying to find them. You wrote the piece headlined “After 2 Killers Fled, New York Prisoners Say, Beatings Were Next.” Describe who you talked to and what happened to the prisoners. Meanwhile, it’s the prison employees who were—who have been indicted, who have been forced to leave, and prison authorities, as well. But the prisoners were beaten?
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Again, we have a number of accounts from inmates who—both in written form, we spoke to some over the phone, and we visited four of these inmates in different prisons in the state. They’ve been scattered since. But basically, what they’re telling us, that obviously, in the hours and days after these two convicted murderers escaped, the situation inside the Clinton prison was very chaotic. We spoke in particular to an inmate who was in the cell next to Richard Matt, one of these individuals who escaped, and he told us that he had been interviewed a number of times during the day, that first day after the escape, but, that evening, was interviewed again. Officers came to his cell, handcuffed him, as was typical during the interrogations earlier in the day, but after that, he was taken to a broom closet, he says, seated down, and the officers there proceeded to beat him. One officer, he said, put a bag over his head and threatened to waterboard him. And after he claimed not to know anything about the escape, he was beaten more severely and then returned to his cell, according to his—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what we’re talking about. This cell is part of a block called the “honor block.”
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And the honor block, of course, is where Richard Matt and David Sweat, the two escaped prisoners, were also imprisoned.
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Yes, as part of the honor block. If I’m not mistaken, there are up to about 180 inmates on the honor block, which has since been shut down at Clinton Correctional Facility. These are inmates who have had very minor disciplinary infractions during their time in prison. So these are the best behaved inmates at the prison. Patrick Alexander, who was the neighbor of Richard Matt, had not had a significant disciplinary infraction for much of his time in prison. He had been in prison since 2003 on a murder charge.
AMY GOODMAN: So when they’re moved to other prisons, they are put in serious conditions now. So they’ve been seriously punished, in addition to beaten.
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Yes. A number of these inmates—we’re told about 60—were moved out of Clinton. Many of them were put for as much as three weeks into solitary confinement, though not charged with anything and not having gone through the typical disciplinary hearing that most inmates go through when they’re put into solitary confinement. They were put into solitary confinement. They were denied access to stamps and paper to write letters. They couldn’t use the phone. And so they were basically cut off from the outside world for as much as three weeks, and then scattered to different prisons around the state.
AMY GOODMAN: Lost their belongings, as well, pictures—
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: A lot of them lost their belongings, said they lost their belongings, personal effects. One inmate described losing his wedding ring, described losing the sonogram of his son. Others lost their writings, their legal papers. This Patrick Alexander who we spoke with lost—he said he had kind of meticulously kept his letters from 2003 from his mother and his aunt; he lost those. And so, there are a lot of complaints—
AMY GOODMAN: So the men who don’t escape are the ones who were punished.
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: That seems to be the case. This is according to—according to them. I should point out that inmates can be problematic, problematic witnesses, problematic and biased. We have attempted, both for the story about Clinton and for the story about Fishkill, to get some sort of an account from the Correction Department and from officers who could have been involved, and that information hasn’t been forthcoming.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to go back to Samuel Harrell. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Could you talk generally about the treatment of prisoners who are mentally unwell and how it compares to the general population?
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: You know, I know very little about the treatment of inmates with mental illness in state prisons. I know a little bit more about it at Rikers Island, since I spent a year working on it there. I do know—studies have shown that inmates with mental illness suffer the most violence in prison. They also perpetrate a lot, a great deal of the violence. They’re the most disruptive. They end up more frequently in solitary confinement, though there are now rules in place that are supposed to prevent inmates with mental illness going into solitary confinement. They’re not always followed. So, in general, have a much harder time of the prison experience than somebody who is not suffering from some sort of a mental illness.
AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response of the state authorities to all these investigations? I mean, in the case of Dannemora, you have Governor Cuomo walking the block. Patrick Alexander, he spoke to him.
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Very little response, I think, somewhat surprisingly, to us. They—the Correction Department, in both cases, put out statements, almost identical statements for both articles, saying that they’re working with the authorities to investigate and that anybody who is found guilty of wrongdoing would be punished. But beyond that, there have been very little details, very little accounts about what occurred.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to leave it there, but we’ll continue to follow this story. Michael Schwirtz, award-winning reporter over at The New York Times, and we’ll link to his articles.