Johnny Perez had just arrived at Clinton Correctional Facility in Upstate New York. Nervous and unsure of the new environment that awaited him, he was standing in line to be assigned a mattress and a cell when he heard a man come up behind him yelling, “CO, CO, they’re robbing my cell! Please go do something!”
Perez, then 23, took in the situation: His peers in line — young, like him — looked worried. The incarcerated man was frantic. And the correctional officer was having none of it. He uttered a profane word and told the man to leave him alone, adding, “Go get a knife like everybody else.”
And at that moment, fear rushing through his body, Perez realized two things: He’d better get a knife like everyone else, and he may not make it home.
Perez did make it home but only after navigating — and bearing the brutality of — 13 years in prison environments where “violence is the language of the land, and you need to learn to speak it quick.”
With no national metrics that uniformly track violence in prisons, Perez’s story and the stories of countless men and women who have suffered brutality behind bars are often all lawmakers have to go on to learn what’s happening inside these facilities. But stories aren’t enough to compel policy change and make prisons safer.
Nancy Rodriguez is determined to do something about that. The University of California Irvine professor is leading a three-year, seven-state study on prison violence that will not only look at the anecdotal evidence but, for the first time in U.S. history, dig into the data by setting up a uniform system of documenting the sources of violence, how often it occurs, and the effects it has.
“Given what we read about and see in the media, prison violence is a crisis for many correctional systems,” Rodriguez said. “But because we know so little about it and because information often comes from these high-profile cases, there are a lot of assumptions.”
None of those assumptions, however, have been examined through rigorous, comprehensive scientific work. “And if we don’t have that,” Rodriguez said, “then it’s impossible for us to get close to saying, ‘This is what we can do to reduce violence.’”
“I think we have reached a point where we are saying it’s not OK to not know what’s happening or make assumptions about what’s happening,” Rodriguez said. “And there’s so much we don’t know.”
‘They Have an “Us Against Them” Mentality’
At their most basic, prisons in America are brutal spaces — “controlling environments, where to survive physically and emotionally requires great fortitude,” said Jeremy Travis, Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. Unlike prison models in Sweden and Norway that focus on rehabilitation and humane interactions between staff and the incarcerated, American prisons are designed to inflict pain: Conditions are often unsanitary, crowded, and restrictive, and there are power dynamics at play in how the incarcerated are treated by prison staff, who often wield threats of punishment, including solitary confinement.
And all of those factors can create a combustible mix inside prisons, where violence is just a mumbled insult or inadvertent glance away.
Because there are currently no reliable statistics on how prevalent violence is in prisons, what little information trickles out of the facilities often comes from photos of blood-splattered cells sent to news organizations, shaky videos posted covertly online, and handwritten letters sent to families or advocacy groups. It usually takes a lawsuit or civil rights investigation for public reports to be written about conditions inside a prison — as has recently been the case in Alabama and Mississippi.
But beyond the headline events — where the circumstances of a riot or outbreak of violence are so egregious the public can’t look away — it’s important to remember that “violence is an impact of everyday life in prisons, it’s hard to control or reduce, and it leaves scars,” Travis said.
Tyrrell Muhammad recalls how, two years into his prison term, he was “whipped unmercifully” for arriving late to his cell and missing the official count. Another time, after taking too long in the shower, he was beaten with batons and dragged by officers — naked and handcuffed — down a flight of stairs face-first.
Phil Miller — who, unprovoked, had his head slammed into a brick wall by a correctional officer as an unofficial warning to behave — witnessed a CO bash a Super 3 radio on the head of an incarcerated person who was handcuffed on the floor.
Herbert Morales had a number of physical altercations with correctional staff during his incarceration. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t resisting or that he was spread out on the ground or even that he was shackled. They would kneel on his back, stand on his ankles, beat him, and deny him medical treatment. They would barrel a plastic shield into his body, slamming him against a wall.
After Perez was told by a correctional officer, “I can kill you in here and no one would know it,” he wrote to his mother, “Mom, if I don’t write you at least once a week or once a month, something happened.”
The management, the supervisors, the checks and balances that are supposed to be in place have no effect, said Morales, 54, who served more than 30 years in New York State prisons, from 1985 to 2017. “There are generations of correctional staff, so literally, the son could issue a misbehavior report, the father could be the disciplinary officer who is in charge of your disciplinary hearing, and the uncle could be the one that you appeal to,” he said. “They support each other, they come from the same communities, they have an ‘us against them’ mentality.”
While many aspects of prison life have changed over the decades, the level of violence at the hands of staff is not one, said Miller, 40, who was incarcerated in New York from 1998 to 2016. Last year, on a monitoring visit to Southport Correctional Facility in Pine City, New York, in his role as Associate Director of Policy at the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), he heard an incarcerated person yelling out for help, but staff discouraged Miller from walking in his direction. As the cries increased, Miller went anyway — and discovered a man in his boxers, bleeding, bruised all over, with his left eye swollen shut and dark indentations on his wrist. He told Miller that minutes before the CANY team arrived at his unit, COs had assaulted him while he was on the floor handcuffed. The reason for the assault, Miller later learned from the superintendent: The man had bit the inside of his lip and spit blood onto a sergeant. The man was already shackled at his legs and wrists, but the superintendent said the officers “had to use appropriate force to take him down.”
Miller, Morales, and Muhammad — who all work at CANY advocating for the incarcerated — are hopeful that New York will be able to turn its prison violence problem around. While their organization has some oversight over state prisons, it’s limited: The association must give 30 days’ notice to visit and be accompanied by staff from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which can affect how openly an incarcerated person or staff member is willing to talk. A bill currently before the governor would allow the group to conduct unannounced inspections, give it unfettered access to records, and allow members to talk privately with correctional staff and incarcerated people.
“Getting information is a starting point,” Miller said, “and then it will allow us to start having discussions about how we can change this problem. What can we do, what can the staff do, what can the state do. We’ll start seeing more possible solutions as we go along.”
‘It’s a Latent Tension in the Air’
In a prison environment, a physical confrontation between peers can start over anything. “It can go from 0 to 100 over a pack of cigarettes, over a basketball game,” said Muhammad, 59, who entered the New York State prison system in 1979 at age 19 and spent 26 years behind bars.
It is also the means by which many incarcerated people are tested. If somebody disrespects you, talks about your mother, talks about your gang, doesn’t apologize for a slight, the prison environment dictates that you have to respond violently, Perez said.
“And if you don’t respond violently, then that tells the rest of the population that you are a person who can be victimized,” Perez said. “If you don’t swing on a person, you know you’re going to spend the rest of your time being talked about, disrespected, skipped in line, robbed, all kind of stuff.”
Miller didn’t see or experience a lot of violence during his years in prison, but that didn’t mean he was immune to its effects. “It definitely is a constant thought — it’s a latent tension in the air.” And you always have to be prepared. “When you go out into the yard, you don’t just run around. You stand back, look around, surveil the area, get a sense of what’s going on — does anyone have a beef you need to avoid or possibly mediate? It’s always a consideration in everyone’s mind at all times.”
Craig Haney, a leading expert on the mental health of incarcerated people, said the psychological effects of that lingering threat can be damaging.
“You don’t need very many instances of … violence to occur before people begin to worry about it and take precautions to guard against it,” Haney said. “What happens is, as part of this process of adapting to the nature of prison life and the ever-present possibility that violence will occur, prisoners develop a certain set of protective psychological mechanisms — constant wariness and preparations to defend oneself.”
And those acts of hypervigilance can take a toll, said Josiah Rich, Director and Co-Founder of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.
“If you’re living in that environment where things can snap in a moment, it’s not that you’re having violence every day, but your adrenal glands are squeezing out stress hormones all the time; you’re on high alert all the time, and it’s not healthy,” said Rich, who is also a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University.
The first time Perez witnessed serious violence inside prison, it shook him to his core. While talking on the phone with his mother, a man standing next to Perez was attacked and cut; Perez was standing so close, he got blood on his shirt.
“I was scared to death the first time I saw that,” he said. “I was shaking to my knees; I couldn’t forget about it. I wasn’t desensitized to violence yet.”
Years later, he’d see people cut and stabbed with enough frequency that he didn’t jump anymore. It was background noise. “It was where I didn’t even linger on a conversation — ‘Hey, that’s messed up, what are we cooking tonight?’”
“It’s emotional numbness,” said Perez, who is now Director of the U.S. Prison Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. “As a person in prison, you force yourself not to feel. You can’t feel, because the minute you feel, that can literally cost you your life. You have to let go of your family, you have to let go of the street, you have to let go of what-ifs, you have to let go of the future, you have to let go of the past, you have to live directly in the moment, you have to be detached as possible from every single thing around you because you’re constantly reminded everything can be taken away — even your own life.”
When incarcerated people leave prison and return home, that personal and vicarious trauma, that numbness, goes with them, said Jocelyn Fontaine, Director of Criminal Justice Research at Arnold Ventures. “What happens is that folks carry that home with them to their families, to their children, to their partners, their mothers, to their fathers, and that becomes an additional burden,” Fontaine said. In addition to finding a job and stable housing, dealing with traumas from prison is just “another thing in the mix of stuff that people need to address and figure out or fix when they’re released from prison.”
‘They Were Breaking Out of Their Cells’
Rodriguez’s study on prison violence is not just about how it affects incarcerated people but also staff. While correctional officers are better protected from violence than they were decades ago — with better staffing levels, procedures and equipment — the job still comes with significant risks.
In October 1989, Tabb Bickell — who now oversees Pennsylvania’s prisons as the Executive Deputy Secretary for Institutional Operations — was in his second year as a correctional officer at State Correctional Institution Camp Hill when a three-day riot broke out.
In his 20s, married and with a toddler son, he was taken hostage — hog-tied, blindfolded and beaten. Bickell was released and able to get medical care, but returned the next day, where the situation exploded even further.
“We were told to abandon posts, the inmates were breaking out,” Bickell said in an oral history compiled by the state last year on the 30th anniversary of the riot. “I could hear the cracking. I wasn’t sure what was happening. But they were breaking out of their cells, and it just happened so fast. And they were actually chasing us pretty much across the compound.”
More than 100 people were injured in the riot — staff and incarcerated people — and more than a dozen buildings were destroyed by fire and vandalism. The Friday after the riot, Bickell went to a high school football game. “I remember the roar of the crowd truly upset me that night,” Bickell said in the oral history. “I didn’t show it, but I felt it. Because it was like I heard the roar of those inmates.”
While violence against officers is rare today, the threat of it is always present, Bickell said.
“Corrections officers and front-line staff are in harm’s way — they don’t have to fight their way in and fight their way out, but they do have to be aware of their surroundings,” he said. “There is always that fear; you just don’t know who is going to have a bad day. You always need to be aware of what you’re walking into, and that adds stress and emotions to a staff member.”
And as with the incarcerated population, that can take a toll.
“Corrections officers are known to perpetrate violence, but they can also be its victims,” said Haney, the psychologist. “Even though it’s statistically infrequent, it’s a concern, and it is one of the things that makes the job of a corrections officer extraordinarily stressful.” Their profession has high rates of mortality, alcoholism and suicide, he said. “It’s a very, very stressful job, and part of that is because they work in an environment where everybody is under a tremendous amount of pressure.”
When Perez saw his peers get violent against correctional officers, it was never unprovoked, he said — even if the cause wasn’t immediately clear.
“I find a lot of violence that goes on when it comes to on staff, when you pull the layers back, there’s stuff there,” Perez said. “When there are problems, I’m like, ‘OK, what else has happened here?’ Because even people who have 20, 30, 40 years, these folks don’t want to do that time in solitary, and they don’t want to do it with a missing eye or missing ribs or get their dreads pulled out one by one. No one wants to cancel their visits if they only see their daughter once every two months. You really, really, really have to push me to that edge.”
‘This is the Future of Corrections’
Go inside the Young Men Emerging unit in the D.C. Department of Corrections with this in-depth short film, “Emerging: The Story of YME” — produced by a former YME member — and learn how they build community and help one another take ownership of their stories.