Rikers, Ferguson, and the Blinkering Effect of Power

Police in Ferguson. Image: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Three times in the last five years, prison guards at Rikers Island have beat inmates to death. To date, not one of the officers involved in those beatings has been charged with a crime, the Associated Press reported yesterday, although the city medical examiner’s office ruled each death a homicide. This comes on the heels of last month’s blistering investigation of inmate treatment at Rikers by the New York Times which revealed, amongst other horrors, that in 2013 corrections staff caused 129 “serious injuries,” defined as “ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat.” (Emphasis mine.) What is going on?

Rikers is the country’s second-largest jail complex, with 12,000 inmates. The latest fatality is Ronald Spear, 52, who died this year after a guard kicked him in the face; he had earlier claimed in court papers that guards at the facility had retaliated against him for “contacting lawyers about his difficulties receiving treatment for kidney disease.” In 2009, Clarence Mobley, a 115-pound, 60-year-old man who was one of approximately 4,000 inmates at Rikers suffering from mental illness, struck a guard with a metal tray. The guard retaliated, if that’s even the right word: in the beating, Mobley suffered a lacerated liver, three broken ribs, a bruised lung, severe internal bleeding, and scrapes and bruises on his back, buttocks, head, and arms. He was found dead in his cell 45 minutes later.

Perhaps the most gruesome of the three murders was the beating that killed Angel Hernandez in 2011. Hernandez, 50, was reportedly hallucinating from alcohol and heroin withdrawal when he took a swing at a guard. He missed. I’ll let the AP take it from here:

What followed, according to investigative documents obtained by The Associated Press, was a quick punch back from the guard that put Ramirez on the floor. Then he was dragged away, beyond the view of security cameras, and three other guards were called in. Inmates later told investigators they heard screaming and the sickening crack of nightsticks against bone.

Inmates reported hearing Ramirez saying “No mas.” He suffered “numerous blunt-impact injuries,” including a ruptured spleen and shattered ribs. An internal investigator neglected to interview the guards for eight months; when he finally got around to it, they insisted Ramirez was struck only once and in self-defense.

The families of all three victims have sued Rikers. Two have settled. It is notoriously difficult to prove criminality in prison-abuse cases, in part due to the secrecy by which many privatized prisons operate, and in part due to the mutual protectiveness that obtains between the prison-industrial complex and the criminal justice system. According to experts who spoke with the AP, attorneys for prison guards can poke holes in the credibility of inmate witnesses, exploit inconsistencies video footage and statements, and safely rely on the code of silence permeating the ranks of officers.

What’s more, a federal investigation of Rikers “found that beatings often occurred out of view of security cameras, internal investigations took months to complete, and guards falsified or otherwise failed to properly fill out use-of-force forms documenting incidents,” the AP writes. Personal-injury claims against the New York City Department of Correction have more than doubled in the last five years, according to a report issued recently by the city’s comptroller office. A culture of violence permeates our prison system.

If recent events in Ferguson are any indication, something like a culture of violence has permeated some of America’s local police departments, too. Cops and prison guards occupy different places on the hierarchy of corrections enforcement, but the primary interactions of both groups are with similar populations: the poor, the mentally-ill, and the non-white. In Ferguson, the majority-white police force has mishandled not only an encounter with a young black man but with the scores of majority-African-American protestors who’ve demonstrated in the aftermath of that man’s murder.

This would be merely racist if the police force weren’t outfitted with literal tools of war. But they are, and if you give a man access to semi-automatic rifles and body armor and tanks, at the very least he’ll head into any confrontation knowing he can win. At the worst, he’ll see his job as similar to that of a soldier rather than a peacekeeper.

This is a new psychology of power, heightened by if not specific to our post-9/11 pathology of terror. At its most panicked, it permits no dissent. We’re warned repeatedly of the threat of terrorism, of war coming to our shores, or festering in our inner cities. And in this environment, when you’re in the position of power, it’s logical to conduct your duty with a sense of fear. The threat is all around you. Provocation cannot be tolerated.

In an op-ed for Al-Jazeera America last week, historian David M. Perry wrote about what he calls “the cult of compliance,” the recent cultural shift amongst law enforcement that treats a failure to obey orders as a justification for escalating violence on non-violent citizens. Noncompliance, to name one recent example, might get you an illegal chokehold. Perry writes:

In cases that seem very different, separated by factors such as age, race, gender, sexuality, geography, class and ability, police explain away their actions by citing noncompliance. They do it because it works. They do it because according to their beliefs, any sign of noncompliance is an invitation to strike.

The consequences of this are not felt equally. The cops have weapons of war and the psychological empowerment that comes with them; the prison guards have a code of silence and institutional advantage, a tacit reinforcement of power and privilege that serves to Other the inmates under their keep. The people of Ferguson have tweets, photos, video, and rapidly-eroding Constitutional rights.

The inmates at Rikers have less than that. Inmates are our most vulnerable population. Imagine how bad Ferguson would be if no one were filming, if no journalists were documenting the brutality, if the whole world weren’t watching?

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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