By Jeffrey Deskovic
“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.
Once, when I was walking from one area of the prison field house to the next, along the way someone passed by me, walking in the opposite direction. He was holding his jacket up high to cover his right cheek. I was surprised and horrified, all at once, to realize that the cheek was bleeding. He was hiding the fact in order to be able to get to the other side of the field house to exact revenge on the person who had cut him before being spotted by the guards. I was so shocked that I don’t remember what happened next.
Another time, when I was in the gym watching a game a basketball game, sitting in the bleachers, I saw through my peripheral vision a young African American male, who could not have been more than 19 years old, bleeding somewhere out of the middle of his face. Just 20 minutes prior to that he had been walking and smiling in the same area.
Another gym incident was involved a guy who carried himself in a loud and boisterous way and was very lax in his attention. He went to the bathroom, which contained six urinals and several toilets; a blind spot into which the guards could not see. The next thing I remember was seeing the guards carrying him on a gurney. His eyes were open, but he was not moving, and appeared to be in shock.
On another occasion, one prisoner owed another a pack of cigarettes. The one who owed them decided that he was not going to repay. This led the first one to sneak into the former’s cell in the morning and administer such a beating that he put the debtor into a coma.
Naturally, not all violence in prison took place at recreation. There were many incidents in the mess hall and the kitchen as well. The kitchen, a place where food was prepared and various other tasks were performed, such as cleaning the trays, cups, the sheet pans, and various cooking wares, provided access to any number of utensils and implements. The mess hall, where inmates went to eat, intersected the kitchen at the serving line, where pre-set portions were given out and prisoners would frequently seek more food.
That meant that servers were frequently caught in the middle. The more desireable the food being served, the greater the potential for conflict because the prisoners eating there would often ignore and not even reach for less edible items.
On one occasion, a few of the servers had been chewed out a day earlier by a guard. The next day, the guard rotated the prisoner who had been serving out bread with the one who had done an unsatisfactory job serving out the main course. Before the meal started, he warned the man to only give out a small portion per person, and he reminded him of the previous server’s screwup the day before.
The new server was significantly smaller than the previous man. Motivated by implied threat, he tried to carry out a difficult assignment.
He had only gotten through 60 or so men when suddenly a prisoner, unsatisfied with the portion he had given, spontaneously threw the tray. The hard edge of the tray struck the worker, leaving him with an injury that required eight stitches and a permanent scar in his forehead.
On another occasion someone, having received their meal and having sat down to eat it, encountered another inmate, an enemy of his, whose back happened to be near him. Suddenly, one prisoner got up and slammed the tray over his head punching him at the same time. The guards broke up the fight, and then slammed one of the participants, who was already subdued, onto the table.
Sometimes the kitchen workers, themselves, were involved in violence. Once when a man was sitting down, waiting for his shift to end, suddenly someone, who was walking by, cut him in the head and the eye. As the victim got up, the other inmate started walking away to make his escape. Meanwhile, a guard who saw it all purposely walked off in the opposite direction.
Another incident involved a couple of prisoners who were drunk. The two had an argument. A little bit later, one, wanting to continue, went up to the other’s friend, asking to fight one-on-one. When refused, the belligerent prisoner attacked him with a shank. This victim also had a shank on him, so they stabbed each other. When they were through, they both staggered out and the friend who had denied permission suddenly slammed a huge container on his head.
There were times that guards would arrange for violence simply for their entertainment. I recall one incident involving two men who had stabbed each other in the chest, and yet had escaped detection. When word reached the prison administration, they were each placed in a status that required them to be kept in their cells while an investigation went on.
They were both moved from one cell block to the next, where they were now kept on the same floor just a few cells apart. One day, at the mandatory one-hour-a-day recreation time, the guards put them both into the same caged area, hoping that they would fight more. However, fortunately, one prisoner pointed out to the other that the guards were purposely doing that for their entertainment, and they therefore ceased hostilities.
Unfortunately, at other times, things didn’t turn out so well. Sometimes guards would spread rumors, whether true or not, about different prisoners, claiming that either they were a snitch, or that they were in jail for sex offenses. On one occasion, a guard put the word out about a prisoner who he didn’t like. Within a few days, some of the other prisoners were physically abusing him, causing him to have to sign into protective custody. Later that guard and his friend, along with the prisoners who had carried out the deed, were talking about it and laughing.
Another incident involved the guards purposely leaving their areas, so as to allow two prisoners to fight each other uninterrupted for a good half hour to 45 minutes. When they had previously fought each other a few days earlier, the guard had told the combatant that he liked, “If he comes in here again, kill him.”
Having served sixteen years in prison and having witnessed a lot of violence, I have a few suggestions for reducing the violence that goes on there.
For one thing, prisoners should be separated in different ways:
A) I do not believe in housing teenagers, sentenced as “adults”, with the adult prisoners, because they are particularly vulnerable and unable to effectively defend themselves.
B) Those who are sentenced to less time should not be housed with those with a lot of time, regardless of the reason. Though theoretically this is supposed to be the case with minimum, medium, and maximum security prisons, it doesn’t work out that way in real life.
I often saw parole violators who had less than two years to go, imprisoned in maximum security prisons, along with people who were there for allegedly committing murder.
Prisoners who are just starting out their sentence are sometimes sent to maximum security prisons for 6 months-to-a-year before being transferred to a medium security facility. As I see it, they should be sent there directly without ever setting foot in the max.
C) Those who are imprisoned for drugs or other non violent crimes should not be housed with prisoners who are there for violence.
D) Those who conduct themselves violently while incarcerated should not be housed with those who do not, regardless of whether the crime they were imprisoned for is violent. To group everybody together has the effect of putting people in a position where they potentially have to become violent in order to defend themselves and survive.
I think that there needs to be an overhaul of the personnel who work in prison. Guards who are not professional, who are abusive, and either encourage violence or look the other way while it is occurring, should be weeded out and no longer employed as correction officers. They set a bad example, and add to the level of violence in prison. Similarly, the general level of mistreatment and indifference needs to be reduced, as it adds to the stress, as does the dangerous practice of double celling. Lastly, rules which have no legitimate purpose in terms of safety or preventing escapes should be done away with.
The practice of putting two prisoners in a cell which was designed for one has led to a lot violence. There was an incident once when a prisoner was assaulted by his cellmate. He reported it to a guard and understandably didn’t want to go back into the cell. He was nonetheless ordered back into the cell. When he went back into the cell, he was assaulted again. On another occasion involving two different prisoners, one prisoner raped the other.
It has happened on more than one occasion that two prisoners were fighting inside of a double cell and then as the guards went into the cell to break the fight up, the prisoners turned on him.
There were some acts of violence that I did not personally witness but which occurred in different parts of the prison which I learned about. These accounts very much affected the overall feel of violence constantly in the air, and added to the feeling that one had to be on one’s toes at all times. There was an incident while I was in Elmira where a prisoner snuck into another one’s cell and attacked him. After subduing his victim, he then shut the cell door and not only killed him but kept cutting him afterwards.
Some instances of violence I heard about from prisoners who came from other facilities were quite startling. One inmate said that the guards in Comstock Correctional Facility were paying prisoners with a carton of cigarettes in order to get them to cut other prisoners. Most prisoners were in fear of being sent to Attica prison, because the guards were known for groping prisoners during pat downs. The word was that if it happened to you, the thing to do was to shut up and above all do not remove your hands from the wall. If a prisoner failed to do either of those things, the guards would assault the prisoner and claim that he came off of the wall and tried to assault them. They were also known for removing prisoners from the line of those who were going to recreation, sending the rest of the group ahead, and with the potential witnesses out of sight, commencing to jump and stomp on the prisoner.
I remember once when I had been transferred to Eastern Correctional Facility. I had arrived a few weeks before a protest would take place, involving all of the prisoners refusing to come out of their cells in protest of double bunking. This demonstration, of course, subjected all who participated to the risk of being given serious sanctions by prison authorities.
Yet, all were expected to participate. Although referred to as a “protest”, participation in it was by no means voluntary. Word went around that on the scheduled date, anybody that came out of their cells would be stabbed.
When it happened, there were a few people who dared to come out anyway. There was a lot of yelling and name calling that went on as they were observed. Later on, those who came out were assaulted, sometimes with weapons.
“Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Jeff is now a practicing attorney.
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