- 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.
Four months ago, Samuel Harrell died at New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility. At the time, officers claimed Harrell, an African-American prisoner with bipolar disorder, may have overdosed on synthetic marijuana, known as K2. But The New York Times recently obtained an autopsy report that determined Harrell’s death was a homicide caused by a “physical altercation with corrections officers.” According to interviews conducted by The New York Times, Harrell died after as many as 20 corrections officers kicked, punched and dragged him down a flight of stairs while he was handcuffed. Some of the officers were known around the prison as the Beat Up Squad. Officers then called an ambulance and told the medical crew Harrell may have overdosed on synthetic marijuana, known as K2. Harrell died that night in a nearby hospital. We speak to Michael Schwirtz, reporter at The New York Times.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end our show with a look at the case of Samuel Harrell, who died four months ago at New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility. An autopsy report obtained by The New York Times determined that Harrell’s death was a homicide caused by a “physical altercation with corrections officers.” Harrell, an African-American prisoner with bipolar disorder, died on April 21st after as many as 20 corrections officers kicked, punched and dragged him down a flight of stairs while he was handcuffed, according to interviews conducted by The New York Times. Some of the officers were known around the prison as the “Beat Up Squad.” Officers then called an ambulance and told the medical crew Harrell may have overdosed on synthetic marijuana, known as K2. Harrell died that night in a nearby hospital. The autopsy showed that Harrell had no illicit drugs in his system.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the case of Samuel Harrell and a series of other allegations of abuse at the hands of correctional officers in New York prisons, we’re joined now by New York Times reporter Michael Schwirtz. He co-wrote the article, “Prison Guard 'Beat Up Squad' Is Blamed in New York Inmate’s Death.” Michael won a George Polk Award for journalism this year for justice reporting for exposing the abuse of inmates by guards at correction and detention facilities. The New York 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.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Michael.
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Beat Up Squad and just exactly who this prisoner was.
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: So, Samuel Harrell was a 30-year-old man. He had been in and out of prisons since 2002 on drug charges—drug selling and possession. He had no violence in his records. He had something of a disciplinary history, but, again, no violence. He had been diagnosed as bipolar in 2010, and his family members say he would sometimes behave erratically. He would think the television was speaking to him. He would think pictures, family pictures, photographs, were speaking to him.
And on the evening of April 21st, he was, by the accounts we’ve heard, also behaving erratically. He had been depressed for some time, announced to correction officers at the Fishkill Correction Facility that he was going home, had packed his bags and had headed towards the exit, and at some point got into a confrontation with correction officers, that led to him being handcuffed, and, according to about 20 inmate accounts that we have, was beaten, possibly dragged or thrown down the stairs, and then ultimately ended up dying.
As you mentioned, in this time, correction officers called paramedics, told them that he was possibly having an overdose from a synthetic marijuana called K2, and the autopsy report found that there was none of that or any other illicit drugs in his system. And so, right now, we’re waiting for any further moves in the investigation. The state police, which is investigating it, has said it would turn over its findings to the local DA shortly, and it will go from there.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn of this story?
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: We received a tip about the death about two days after it occurred from one of our sources, actually at Rikers Island, who had connections at Fishkill, and dug and dug, and we eventually hooked up with a law firm that was representing his family, which was able to obtain these sworn affidavits from inmates. Many of them agreed to share them with us on condition of anonymity, but three of them chose to have their names published, one of whom was already released at the time.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also mention in your piece that many of the prisoner inmates or the inmates who testified have since been punished.
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Up to as many as nine have been put in solitary confinement. Whether that is linked to their witnessing and speaking out about the death is unclear. Others said that they were threatened with violence, threatened that they would be next if they said anything about—about this Beat Up—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: They said anything to whom? To any particular—
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: If they said anything to investigators, to—as we understand it, there were internal Department of Correction investigators who went in and interviewed some of these inmates. But some of these inmates also said they received threats from other correction officers about not talking.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And is that typical, in your experience of reporting, about witnesses?
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: We’ve heard these—we’ve heard these similar accusations in the past in state prisons. We wrote recently about abuse claimed by inmates at the Clinton Correctional Facility after this escape in Dannemora in June, that they received similar threats, and, worse, that some of them were beaten up in an effort to extract information.