Samuel Harrell, who died while imprisoned at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y., in April, with a niece.
On the evening of April 21 in Building 21 at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, Samuel Harrell, an inmate with a history of erratic behavior linked to bipolar disorder, packed his bags and announced he was going home, though he still had several years left to serve on his drug sentence.
Not long after, he got into a confrontation with corrections officers, was thrown to the floor and was handcuffed. As many as 20 officers — including members of a group known around the prison as the Beat Up Squad — repeatedly kicked and punched Mr. Harrell, who is black, with some of them shouting racial slurs, according to more than a dozen inmate witnesses. “Like he was a trampoline, they were jumping on him,” said Edwin Pearson, an inmate who watched from a nearby bathroom.
Mr. Harrell was then thrown or dragged down a staircase, according to the inmates’ accounts. One inmate reported seeing him lying on the landing, “bent in an impossible position.”
“His eyes were open,” the inmate wrote, “but they weren’t looking at anything.”
Mr. Harrell's sister, Cerissa Harrell, left, and his wife, Diane, in Cerissa Harrell's apartment in Kingston, N.Y. CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times
Corrections officers called for an ambulance, but according to medical records, the officers mentioned nothing about a physical encounter. Rather, the records showed, they told the ambulance crew that Mr. Harrell probably had an overdose of K2, a synthetic marijuana.
He was taken to St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital and at 10:19 p.m. was pronounced dead.
In the four months since, state corrections officials have provided only the barest details about what happened at Fishkill, a medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City. Citing a continuing investigation by the State Police, officials for weeks had declined to comment on the inmates’ accounts of a beating.
An autopsy report by the Orange County medical examiner, obtained by The New York Times, concluded that Mr. Harrell, 30, had cuts and bruises to the head and extremities and had no illicit drugs in his system, only an antidepressant and tobacco. He died of cardiac arrhythmia, the autopsy report said, “following physical altercation with corrections officers.”
The manner of death: Homicide.
Previous Reports of Violence
No officers have been disciplined in connection with the death, officials said. A classification of homicide is a medical term that indicates the death occurred at the hands of other people, but it does not necessarily mean a crime was committed.
Inmate witnesses at Fishkill say they are the ones who have been punished. Several described being put into solitary confinement and threatened with violence after speaking with Mr. Harrell’s family, their lawyers and with news reporters.
The Times documented similar allegations of abuse from inmates at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., where in June two convicted murderers escaped, resulting in a three-week manhunt. There, inmates described being beaten and choked with plastic bags by corrections officers seeking information about the escapees. Many were then thrown into solitary confinement.
The prison building where Mr. Harrell died has long been singled out as a violent place. In 2013, the Correctional Association of New York, a 171-year-old inmate advocacy group with a legislative mandate to inspect New York State prisons, published a report documenting “harassment and provocation” by officers working in Building 21 from 3 to 11 p.m. This was the same time frame when Mr. Harrell died. The association, which found similar problems in 2005, briefed officials with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in fall 2013, including the acting commissioner, Anthony Annucci, as well as Fishkill’s superintendent, William J. Connolly, who resigned this month.
Even so, inmates said, the problems have persisted. Five weeks before Mr. Harrell’s death, David Martinez, an inmate in Building 21 who was serving time for attempted murder, among other charges, filed a grievance saying he was being assaulted and harassed by officers, and asking that the officers on that shift “be split up.” In a subsequent letter, he described them as “a group of rogue officers” who “go around beating up people.”
In July, another inmate, Rickey Rodriguez, said that officers beat him so severely that he lost his two front teeth and had to be hospitalized. Interviewed a little more than a week after he was released from prison, Mr. Rodriguez, who was serving time for attempted murder, was still covered with cuts and bruises, and the white of his right eye was stained red with blood. “They go out of their way to pick and choose to beat on guys,” he said.
The State Police plan to turn over the evidence gathered to the Dutchess County district attorney’s office “in the very near future,” said Beau Duffy, an agency spokesman. The corrections department said it was cooperating with the State Police.
A memorial program for Mr. Harrell. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
“Anyone found to have engaged in any misconduct or in any legal violations will be disciplined and prosecuted,” the department said in a statement.
The Times pieced together the events leading to Mr. Harrell’s death from 19 affidavits and letters written by inmates and obtained through the law firm Beldock Levine & Hoffman, which is representing Mr. Harrell’s family. Most of the inmates shared their affidavits on the condition that their names not be used, because they said they feared retribution from corrections officers. Three agreed to be interviewed with their names made public.
According to Luna Droubi, a lawyer at the firm, at least nine of the inmates who saw what happened had been placed at some point in solitary confinement. She said that the firm would soon file a lawsuit in connection with the death, and that there was a need for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate.
The inmates witnessed the encounter from several vantage points, including a day room and bathroom just a few feet away. Two described being at the bottom of the staircase and seeing Mr. Harrell come falling down.
Inmate witnesses are typically viewed with skepticism by investigators, but the accounts from Fishkill are strikingly consistent. Inmates there are serving sentences for felonies, such as drug crimes and murder, but have earned the right to take part in programs like work-release.
No one could say for sure what set off the confrontation with Mr. Harrell. There were no surveillance cameras in that area, according to inmates, and corrections officials acknowledged that there are only a few for the entire prison.
James Miller, a spokesman for the corrections officers’ union, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, said in an email last month that Mr. Harrell was “acting violently and appeared delusional as a result of apparently ingesting drugs.” While trying to subdue him, one guard had several ribs broken, Mr. Miller said.
Officials have described abuse of K2 by inmates as a problem throughout the state prison system.
On Monday, Mr. Miller wrote in an email that the union was “reviewing all the facts before rushing to judgment.”
“Rather than simply relying on allegations made by a handful of violent convicted felons,” he wrote, “we will continue to work with our partners in law enforcement to ensure a resolution to this tragic incident.”
Mr. Harrell had served several stints in prison for drug crimes starting in 2002. He had five disciplinary infractions while incarcerated, including one days before his death for possessing contraband, according to prison records. None involved violence.
Inmates and family members say that any erratic behavior more likely stemmed from his mental illness. In the weeks before his death, they said, he had been depressed. In 2010 he learned he had bipolar disorder and was hospitalized, according to medical records. His wife, Diane Harrell, said that when he was not taking his medication, he would go through the house turning over family photographs for fear they were staring at him. He also believed the television was talking to him, she said.
Mr. Harrell also had a history of heart disease and drug abuse, which the autopsy report said contributed to his death.
The day he died, several inmates described him as being depressed and withdrawn. Ibrahim Camara said he found Mr. Harrell sitting alone, watching television and asked what was wrong. “I said, ‘Is it your mom, family or something?’” Mr. Camara recalled in a phone interview from prison. “He shook his head yes.” Mr. Harrell’s mother had died in November.
Around 8:30 that night, Mr. Harrell — whose nickname was JRock — told two officers that his wife and sister were coming to pick him up and take him home, according to one inmate’s affidavit.
His earliest release date from prison was September 2020.
The officers called for medical and mental health assistance but could not reach anyone, the inmate reported. Soon after, the inmate said that two more officers arrived. “I believe JRock panicked after seeing all those officers surrounding him,” the inmate wrote. “JRock jumped up and ran.”
Mr. Camara said he was in the day room, watching a playoff game between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, when he heard a commotion in the hallway. “Me and other inmates, we hear the walls shaking, doom, doom, doom, doom,” he recalled. “Somebody opened up the door and looked outside, and said, ‘Yo, that’s JRock they got out there.’”
He was on the floor, face down and handcuffed, several inmates said. In short order, a large group of officers converged around him. The inmates in their affidavits and letters identified nine officers by name as being involved.
“I saw the officers kicking him, jumping on his head multiple times and screaming, ‘Stop resisting,’ even though I didn’t see him moving,” wrote Mr. Pearson, who has since been released after serving two years on a weapons charge.
None of the affidavits or letters mentioned Mr. Harrell’s fighting back or speaking during the encounter. Several said that once he was on the floor, handcuffed, he stopped moving, and a few of the inmates speculated he may have already been dead by then.
Indeed, Mr. Camara said inmates were surprised that Mr. Harrell, who was over six feet tall and weighed 235 pounds, did not try to defend himself. “People was even mad, I was mad,” he said. “You’re a big guy and you let these people literally kill you.”
The inmates said that during the encounter, an officer they identified as Robert Michels appeared to have a medical emergency. Mr. Pearson, who later identified Officer Michels through a Facebook photo, said he saw the officer “rip open his shirt and he was gasping for air and grabbing his chest.”
Officers went to attend to Officer Michels, who was soon carried out on a stretcher, inmates said.
Identifying the Guards
Mr. Rodriguez at his home in Albany. Credit Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
While Mr. Harrell lay still on the floor, officers periodically walked by, kicking him and hitting him, Mr. Camara said.
Most of the inmates could identify the officers by last names only, which they spelled in a variety of ways in their affidavits. In a database of New York State employees, seethroughny.net, there are several Fishkill officers who appeared to match the guards most often named by the inmates as being directly involved in the encounter. They are Thomas Dickenson (named by 10 of the inmates), John Yager (10), Officer Michels (nine), Bryan Eull (five) and a white woman they knew only as “Ms. B” (four).
They also identified the ranking officer at the scene as Sgt. Joseph Guarino. Reached by telephone, Sergeant Guarino confirmed he was present that night but said he could not comment.
Neither the corrections department nor the union would confirm the names of the officers. Reached by phone, several of the officers declined to comment. Others did not respond to voice mail messages, emails or messages sent through Facebook.
Through the years, Sergeant Guarino, 60, has been sued several times by inmates accusing him of brutality. One case was settled by the state in 2012 for $60,000 and another in 2011 for $65,000. In a 2011 deposition, he said inmates typically filed about 30 grievances against him a year and referred to him by the nickname Sergeant Searchalot.
Four inmates wrote that after Officer Michels was taken away, they heard Sergeant Guarino order officers to throw Mr. Harrell down the stairs.
“Harrell came rolling sideways down the stairs,” Mr. Martinez wrote, adding that he had a “bedsheet tied all around his body and he was in mechanical restraints.”
Mr. Martinez said that two officers he identified as Mr. Eull and Mr. Dickenson then tried to put Mr. Harrell into a wheelchair but had difficulty lifting him.
Mr. Harrell, he wrote, “was not responsive at all” and “kept sliding off the wheelchair.”
Another inmate who was nearby said that Officer Eull ordered him to stop looking, and then grabbed him and pushed him into a corner. “He then told me, ‘You better forget what you saw here if you ever want to make it home,’” the affidavit said.
An inmate looking out of his cell wrote that he saw Mr. Harrell being taken away. The inmate wrote that he had seen 10 to 15 corrections officers “surrounding a wheelchair being wheeled out of the building with a white sheet draped over a body that could have been naked because I seen bare feet dragging on the ground.”
According to records from the ambulance service, a call came reporting a possible overdose at the Fishkill prison at 9:16 p.m.; the ambulance team arrived there at 9:30 p.m. and reached Mr. Harrell by 9:34 p.m. “Staff reports that pt. was possibly smoking K2 and became very aggressive, shortly after he went unresponsive and into cardiac arrest,” the records said.
The next morning at 7:30, Mr. Harrell’s sister, Cerissa Harrell, received an anonymous call from an inmate in Building 21. “He called me and said, ‘Sam got hit the night before and they took him and he hasn’t been back and nobody has heard or seen from him.’”
“You could hear the franticness in his voice,” she said.
A half-hour later, she said, someone from the corrections agency called to say her brother was dead.Susan C. Beachy contributed research.
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