The attack on the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 provides a renewed spotlight on policing and race in America. White nationalists and others descended upon the United States Capitol, seeking to violently reverse the results of the contentious 2020 presidential election. To be clear, the people who attacked the Capitol were and are insurrectionists — seditious, domestic terrorists who destroyed federal property and assaulted people. Five people were killed that day.
What is even more troubling is the way in which the domestic terrorists were gently and courteously escorted from the Capitol. One can’t forget the mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors who were gassed, bludgeoned, shot with rubber bullets and assaulted as they protested not some manufactured conspiracy of a deposed despot, but the killing of black citizens by state police authorities. What we saw was a stark example of how “law and order” is the privileged expectation of White America — and a living nightmare for everyone else.
To be a prisoner of color in America is to live in a parallel universe where all the inequities of the larger society are mirrored. From the lower mid-Hudson Valley to New York City, the state’s correctional facilities have a high concentration of Black and Brown officers and other staff. Throughout the rest of the state, the majority of correctional facilities are manned by White employees, emblematic of the communities where those facilities exist. The farther north and west one goes, attitudes of race and class mirror the white cultural values of those communities.
In all facilities, the brutalization of Black and Brown bodies is possible behind the closed and opaque doors of correctional facilities whose agency symbol is the blind Lady Justice. “Law and order” here is the same rapacious brutality exercised on its Black and Brown charges as experienced in communities of color all over America. The difference is that, in the correctional setting, the lack of oversight normalizes the excessive use of force. There is little to no pushback on the unbridled use of force in the state’s prison because we are out of sight and out of mind.
A mild infraction can have the consequence of one being pepper sprayed as a first recourse, whether it is warranted or not; then one may be assaulted with fists, feet and batons. After which, one will be placed in restraints, escorted to medical for a cursory exam and then sent to the Special Housing Unit, or “SHU,” for any number of days, months or years.
The Attica riot in 1971 saw a host of legislative reforms in the state’s prisons in the vain hope of mitigating corruption, racial oppression, violence between guards and prisoners, and a sundry list of quality-of-life issues. The Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee (IGRC) was created in response to those issues in New York State prisons.
In reality, the Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee is a toothless administrative remedy for prisoner complaints, more symbolic than effective in providing relief and redress. Tense exchanges with some officers are often met with them menacingly telling you to file a grievance, then stating their last name and how to spell it.
It is nevertheless an important process that must be exhausted through the filing of the grievance and the two appellate steps that must be followed if one seeks judicial remedy in state or federal court.
The IGRC is composed of five individuals, usually a mix of staff and inmates, who make non-binding recommendations at hearings whose final decision rests with the superintendent. All grievances regarding staff conduct, assaults and threats of assault, sexual harassment and abuse by staff are categorized Code 49.
Code 49s exist in a category called’ “Executive Direction,” and only the superintendent can review and render final determinations about Code 49’s. There are fifteen disposition codes, but for the purpose of this essay only one is important, “UU.” “UU” means the grievance has been found to be without merit and subsequently denied by the superintendent. Here in Sing Sing, there were more than a hundred Code 49’s in 2019, all with “UU” dispositions. In the first half of 2020 there were dozens. They, too, all have “UU” dispositions.
One agonizes over the pros and cons of filing a staff conduct grievance, as filing a Code 49 complaint subjects one to potential retaliation. I’m sure there are informal reprimands in the case of staff conduct violations that would be chargeable criminal offenses in the street, but those reprimands are rarely reflected in personnel files and never make it to the local district attorney for criminal review. Officers may feel they can harass and assault prisoners with impunity.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.