A Repository of Social Ills: Mass Incarceration in Broome County

by Stephen Perez

BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK—Salladin Barton, a former inmate at Broome County jail, foretold his own grim prophecy. While visiting with his family, he pleaded with them: “The guards are going to kill me. You gotta get me outta here.” Shortly after, on Jan. 15, 2015, Barton was found dead, alone on the grime encrusted floor of his cell. His death is one in a long line of others that have suffered similar fates. Although his story is tragically common, it underscores the suffering brought into people’s lives by the United States correctional system. For those in the Broome County jail, there is a loss of personhood; there is no justice, only the promise of despair.

Barton, an inmate with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was awaiting trial since 2013 for charges of felony count first degree robbery for allegedly accosting and robbing a man of spare change. During his sentence at Broome County jail, he was called racial slurs and was subjected to physical torture by a group of officers dubbed by the inmates as the “beat down squad.” The Barton family attorney, Ronald Benjamin, requested letters from inmates that were incarcerated with him. According to the accounts, correctional officers repeatedly punched, kicked and beat him while he remained defenseless. The accounts in these letters detailed how correctional officers deprived him of basic necessities, going so far as to leave his food outside of his cell, purposely out of his reach, until they came later to throw it out and starve him.

There is a Facebook page memorializing Barton that details his death and keeps his memory alive. I contacted his older brother, Yasir, who told me more about Barton and the kind of person he was. “He was definitely a very over friendly people person. He never had much but, when he did, he had no problem sharing it. My brother was never a violent person, and his previous record shows that,” says Yasir. His case highlights the toll that inmate abuse and death has on their families. “The way he died and the things that led up to is still inexcusable,” says Yasir, who posts videos talking about how much he misses his brother, and has consistently thanked those that participate in activist work on behalf of Salladin. “Our spirit is really close with each other,” says Yasir in a video he posted to the memorial page, “I still speak to Sal all the time.”

A Fall from Grace: Broome County’s Economic Downturn

Treating prisoners the way Barton was treated is a recurring tragedy in Broome County jail that has its origins in a toxic mix of poverty, defunded health and social services, and an opioid epidemic. Broome County, located in south-central New York (the southern tier), was once an industrial powerhouse where firms led by IBM catapulted the economy forward. A recession in 2008 plagued the region and the former Silicon Valley of the Northeast has become a shell of its former self. High tech firms, including IBM, have since moved from the area, resulting in a deindustrialized region. In places like Endicott, a small town located in Broome County and where IBM was founded, over 11,000 people were employed by the tech giant before it left the region. The aging and poor population confronts a 17.5 percent poverty rate. The abandoned factories, repurposed offices and decaying structures that dot the Broome County landscape are reminders of this economic downturn.

Despite a declining crime rate and population, the Broome County jail population has increased by 30 percent over the last 20 years. A growing incarceration system despite a declining crime rate and falling population is a common trend in Upstate New York counties. This could be attributed to rising arrest rates for low-level offenses, such as loud noise or rowdy behavior. Inefficiencies in the criminal justice system that prevent people from rapidly moving through it could also contribute to the trend. People are housed in jails whose nominal purpose is to hold those serving sentences less than one year or people awaiting trial. However, inability to post bail or a lack of access to legal counsel holds people behind bars for far longer. Broome County is rife with inefficiency; 75 percent of the persons held in the jail are unconvicted and cannot afford bail set by the Broome County judge. The fact that a majority of inmates cannot post bail is symptomatic of a system that seems to punish poverty, which is troublesome given the economic downturn Broome County faces.

In addition to being overwhelmingly poor, the jail population is also disproportionately black; whereas black people make up 5 percent of the general population, they constitute 28 percent of the jail population. On a national scale, the pattern remains the same. While 13 percent of the U.S. population identifies as black, the Federal Bureau of Prisons measures that 37.9 percent of inmates are black. Racism experienced by black inmates in Broome County jail has been recorded by local activist groups. One inmate said, “I’ve been called N*****, monkey, and other degrading names… when we speak up we get punished by being put in the Box… animals get treated better than Broome County inmates.” The inmate’s experience indicates an obvious and deplorable disdain from correctional officers toward black inmates, a dynamic not unique to Broome County. In fact, our uniquely American mass incarceration originates from a legacy of racialized slavery.

In his 2018 book, American Prison, investigative reporter Shane Bauer went undercover as a correctional officer at a private prison in Louisiana. Bauer explained the origins of the United States’ incarceration system in the context of the drive to profit from Black people despite the end of slavery. “Part of what saved the penitentiary system was the phasing out of slavery in the Northeast. Whites feared large numbers of free black men and the penitentiary offered a way to enforce compliance and obedience of free African Americans,” Bauer wrote. Oftentimes, calls for abolition were paired with demands for an expansion of the penitentiary system. The history of America’s incarceration is deeply rooted in controlling the livelihood of black people and maintaining the nature of institutional slavery. Modern institutions do not stray far from this legacy, as demonstrated by Broome County’s disproportionately black population. Besides being a standing relic of slavery and systemic racism, the corrections system has become a haven for other social ills.

Expanding the Carceral Net

The jail acts as a storage facility for the social problems that Broome County is unable to deal with. Stripped of revenue from taxation and forced to cut services like addiction centers and mental health facilities, the county has invested in incarceration. Despite protests during county meetings, correctional funding received a staggering $6 million boost to expand the jail in 2014, adding 50 new beds and hiring 13 new correctional officers as of 2017. In the 2019 budget proposal, public health services are being downsized and a 1.3 percent cut to mental health services will be implemented. This comes as no surprise, considering mental health services have seen a 70 percent decrease in their budget over the past 15 years.

Elected officials justify their proposed funding increase for incarceration on the implementation of governor Andrew Cuomo’s Raise-the-Age Bill, a New York state mandate that requires 16 and 17 year olds charged with misdemeanors to have their cases transferred over to Family Court. It also stipulates that juvenile offenders cannot be held in adult county jails. Jason Garnar, a Broome County Executive, linked increased costs for upping the number of corrections officers, probation officers, district attorneys and youth e-shackles in his 2019 budget address to the Raise-the-Age legislation. While the Raise-the-Age Bill had noble intentions, Cuomo’s “reform” has only aided in expanding the carceral state.

Youth being transferred over to specialized detention facilities across the state has merely reproduced the same patterns of violence and abuse found in their previous adult facilities. In 2018, there were approximately 385 reported uses of restraints on inmates and 478 uses of force by Department of Corrections (DOC) officers on adolescent inmates. Horizon Juvenile Center, located in the Bronx, is currently facing a civil suit from two male inmates alleging that they were forcibly intoxicated and sexually assaulted by correctional officers. New York City was able to spend $300 million on their existing youth facilities, but for counties like Broome who face economic decline, there are not many options but to send youth offenders off to these abusive facilities, reopen previously abusive ones, or put them on house arrest.

In addition to the expansion and proliferation of new youth facilities, budgetary increases for more probation officers, judges and police to manage the influx of cases for youth offenders will only expand the surveillance and control of their lives. This is largely due to the instrumental role probation officers have in Family Court. Probation officers conduct the intake of youth and recommend the level of punishment necessary for each offender. There are strict rules a youth offender will have to follow under the guise of a probation officer, including having no contact with the police, which can make it difficult for youth that live in highly policed and surveilled neighborhoods. This strict control is now the norm for dealing with youth offenders, whereas diversion or dismissal could be facilitated.

Governor Cuomo touts his reform as a progressive beacon of the nation, however his actions are in line with a harmful philosophy known as carceral humanism, a term coined by activist James Kilgore. Instead of attempting to restructure the entire punitive system, politicians, corrections officials, police officers and county sheriffs are repackaging it by making minor changes in their discourse, funding cosmetic reforms, and institutionalizing social services. While bound by the state in some regards, county officials have discretion in these matters when it comes to funding. This can be seen in Broome County Executive Jason Garnar’s 2019 budget address, where he places the responsibility of providing adequate health and social services on the county administration. Carceral humanism typifies those working in jails as caring social service providers and has morphed the jail into an asylum of sorts. According to Kilgore, correctional officials are able to hide behind a façade that paints them as compassionate and concerned for the wellbeing of inmates.

Carceral humanism comes in another form, known as “gender responsive” facilities. Research has shown that women experience incarceration differently than men, and this has led to law enforcement waving what Kilgore calls the “gender banner” to receive more funding for constructing correctional facilities. “Gender responsive” is correctional jargon for a woman’s facility, and any attempt to cater to women and their unique experiences in jail stops at constructing new facilities.

Picture this: a giant gymnasium with bunk beds along the wall. There are tables toward the center of the room, shower stalls with no curtains, and toilets out in the open, where someone eating can catch a full view of someone using them. This is the configuration of the Broome County women’s unit, which was paid for by the recent budget expansion. Male officers sit in the center of the room, berating and gawking at women from their comfortable officers station. They get paid for this kind of vulgar and belittling behavior. These units are pawned off the same way Cuomo promoted his Raise-the-Age Bill; progressive and reformist. You can even take a tour of the facility online.

While women receive the lowest denominator of basic necessities and living space, inmates with addictions do not fare much better. According to a report from the local sheriff, over 80 percent of those incarcerated have substance use disorders. The criminal justice system targets those with substance use disorders and arrests them for minor drug offenses instead of helping them get the services they need to treat the disorder.

There is no evidence suggesting that arresting drug users solves the opioid epidemic. According to a Justice Policy Institute study, 60 percent of drug offenders are rearrested, 41.2 percent for additional drug offenses. Furthermore, approximately 95 percent of incarcerated addicts will return to substance abuse. However, when social ills like drug use epidemics and concentrated poverty plague an area, incarceration is more convenient than providing legitimate services. Correctional officers are actors in a system that addresses the crime of a drug offender, and not the underlying issues that contribute to their criminal behavior. Given the high rates of recidivist behavior among addicts, it is clear that jails are not equipped to act as treatment centers.

The jail’s inability to adequately care for its inmates has lead to a staggering number of deaths. Besides Barton, there have been 6 other deaths in Broome County jail since 2011, which is shocking when taking the jail’s size into account. For a jail of Broome County’s size, there are an average of .25 deaths annually. However, between 2013 and 2016, the rate was 1.5, which is 6 times higher than the national average. Even more disturbing, these deaths have been concealed by public officials and it took a freedom of information act request to receive information regarding the deaths. Alvin Rios, one of the inmates that lost his life in the jail in 2011, was left lying down and shaking without receiving proper medical attention until he died. Similarly, Barton was refused treatment for pneumonia.

There seems to be a lack of interest in these deaths from the Broome County Chief Investigator, Jason T. Ellis, who puts his confidence in the official in charge of overseeing the jail, County Sheriff David E. Harder. “It is our understanding [that] the Sheriff’s office conducted an investigation. We will review the matter to determine if further investigation is warranted.” This trust in the Sheriff’s office seems unfounded, considering that he’s being sued for the death of Barton.

Harder’s record of dealing with inmate deaths is spotty and troublesome. The death of Kevin Carroll, an inmate who died in 2016 after being in a coma for 3 days, has raised suspicions among members of the community and activist group Together We Stand. These suspicions are based on claims made by Harder that Carroll’s medical history is the cause of his death. “It’s unfortunate that this gentleman died, but unfortunately, if you knew his medical history, you’d understand why he died,” said Harder. Yet according to Carroll’s family, he had no previous mental or physical illness prior to entering Broome County jail. “As far as the family knows, as much as I’ve been told, he did not have any physical or mental illness prior to his death,” said Sevgi Fernandez, the founder and president of Together We Stand. The lack of transparency and conflicting testimonies in regard to inmate deaths highlight a lack of accountability among officials, as well as a faulty system of social services within the facility.

In their continuous effort to cut costs, Broome County officials have resorted to privatizing many of the services provided in the jail, including health care. Correctional Medical Care, inc. (CMC), is New York’s largest provider of jail medical care and is the corporate entity responsible for the extreme medical neglect inmates face. In order to pass state accreditation, CMC told its Broome County employees to falsify documents to cover up the fact that they routinely and purposely refuse inmates medical care. Three former nurses employed under CMC in Broome County jail are filing a lawsuit against the corporation in response to these actions. Their attorney, Ronald Benjamin, says that CMC was looking to cut costs to make their contract profitable with Broome County, therefore resulting in medical neglect. An inmate with a broken arm was denied pain relievers, an amputee was refused medical attention, and another inmate was denied proper medication to treat a life threatening thyroid condition. An Attorney General Office’s investigation resulted in a $200,000 lawsuit, as well as a civil suit settled for $62,500 for the death of Alvin Rios.

While the lawsuits against CMC were perhaps a step in the right direction because they held the corporation accountable for their actions, it has not changed much. I spoke with a Binghamton University PhD candidate in sociology, Kevin Revier, whose research focuses on the opioid epidemic near the southern border of New York, as well as the justice system’s response to it. Part of his work involves visiting the Broome County jail and talking to the inmates. However, he notes that he is not allowed to record the conversation or bring any writing materials into the visitation center, ever since the NAACP was required by the jail administration to conduct interviews in public visitation rooms. During our conversation, he emphasized the reality of the inmates’ medical care. “There is a stigma attached to those in jail. And that hurts their medical care. Inmates with hearing aids are denied batteries. They can’t have glasses. Those with substance use disorder aren’t tapered off their addictions and are denied proper care.”

Those incarcerated with substance abuse disorders are in danger of experiencing fatal withdrawal symptoms, and Broome County jail does not provide the proper medical care to address these issues. “There’s one guy I’ve been talking to,” Revier says as he recounts his regular visits, “he was addicted to heroin and had done a bad bunch of it, requiring him to detox in the medical unit. His withdrawal caused him to have seizures, but they just stomped on his hand.” Revier pauses before continuing on with his account, looking down at the floor. “They put him in a restraint chair, and called him a ‘worthless addict.’ They took him to solitary and beat him there. He told me they tortured him.” This treatment stems from a cultural norm in the United States that obsesses over reprisal for one’s crimes. Not only do inmates endure physical punishment and deprivation of necessities, but they are shamed for their condition. In Broome County jail, inmates are deprived of human rights.

After hearing Revier recount gruesome tales of inmates he’s talked to, I found it difficult to grasp why these occurrences are so frequent yet receive so little attention. He notes that there is a grievance report available for inmates to fill out, but they are virtually useless because the facility ignores them. In the inmate handbook, there is a small section that outlines the procedures for filing grievances, which is required by the State Correction Law and the State Commission of Corrections (SCOC) for county facilities. It states that an inmate must request a grievance form from the grievance officer within 5 days of the incident being reported. The form is then reviewed by the officer and a written response is produced within another 5 business days, which is overseen by the Sheriff. All matters are required to be overseen and settled within 45 days.

The Broome County inmate handbook states that the grievance policy is in place to guarantee fair treatment of inmates. “It is the policy of the Broome County Sheriff’s Correctional Facility to treat all inmates in a fair and impartial manner without giving special privileges to anyone,” reads the handbook. Yet according to a report done by the New York State Commission of Correction and Division of State Government Accountability, glaring flaws exist in the grievance system. While inmates can appeal to the SCOC for additional redress of their grievance if they feel that the county did not handle it properly, there is no requirement of county staff to demonstrate corrective action. This allows the county to ignore grievances as long as they’re responded to in written form, assuming that the inmate can meet the stringent time requirements for filing.

These ignored reports are representative of two key characteristics that keeps the jail system afloat: control and invisibility. “Largely, I would view mass incarceration as a system of control. It’s not just big prisons, although they are important. Primarily, it’s state prisons and county jails. A lot of it isn’t seen,” says Revier, who sees the current jail complex as a form of social control. He also highlights forms of control outside of the jail, which include electronic monitoring devices, drug courts and probation officers. Even if inmates do survive the terrors of the jail, there are methods that keep them in the system.

Revier told me about his experience in an organization called Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST), which he joined about three years ago. He described it as a network that collaborates with other activist organizations, such as the NAACP, to advocate for inmates as well as to protest against the actions of Broome County jail officials. They have several goals for the future of the jail: less jailing and more programming for mental health and substance use disorder, public hearings on jail abuse and in custody medical care, and the establishment of a permanent, independent jail oversight committee composed of community members. In addition, they would like to see more students involved, especially for jail visitation. “It’s not voyeuristic. We’re not trying to get students involved for the shock factor,” Revier said. “We’re there for collaboration.”

Beyond the Carceral Walls: Conversations and Action

The Broome County jail is only a 13 minute drive away from Binghamton University, which has taken to calling itself the “premier public ivy.” A school that boasts excellent academics and a strong ranking among other public universities, its proximity to the jail resembles opposite sides of a spectrum. Whereas the university is an institution that provides opportunity and hope to its constituents, the jail exists in a dark haze where inmates are subjugated to mistreatment. The dichotomy is astounding; two starkly different institutions exist within the same ten mile radius. This proximity has led to an emergence of professors and students that are interested in understanding the jail complex in order to combat it effectively.

To explore this academic work and further understand mass incarceration, I attended a panel discussion called Incarceration in the U.S. Two sociologists, Juanita Diaz-Cotto and Joshua Price, philosophy professor Charles Goodman, and Fordham Law professor John Pfaff were invited to speak and answer questions about criminal justice and the ramifications of mass incarceration. As the crowd of students settled down, the first set of questions were asked. “What are the costs of incarceration? Who bears those costs? What questions of justice are at issue?” The answers illuminated a new perspective.

“I’m an atheist, but there seems to be a deep spiritual cost to incarceration,” said Professor Price, who looked out to the sea of undergraduates with a furrowed brow, contemplative in his answer. “There’s this paradox in the constitution. There are promises of freedom within a context of slavery. And it still haunts us, centuries later, just embodied differently.” The inherent hypocrisy in the U.S. constitution’s guarantee of freedom, as highlighted by Professor Price, is a betrayal to those incarcerated. Torture, abuse and neglect strip people away of their autonomy and revoke their personhood. Think back to the story Kevin Revier told about the man that was repeatedly called a “worthless drug addict.” Salladin Barton was deprived of food, medical care and stripped of his sanity. These examples are but a few, however they demonstrate that inmates are minimized to their crime, stripped of basic human rights, and are only seen as deserving of punishment.

The panel also tackled the complicated notion of punishment and the system’s focus on retribution. Punishing offenders in proportion to their crime seems logical, however this is often not done in practice, as seen in Barton’s case, who was tortured for a robbery. There are also unseen costs to incarceration that throw punishments out of proportion. Professor Diaz-Cotto noted these costs. “You lose your job. You’re disenfranchised as a citizen. Usually you can’t even get a job because of your record.” This notion of an “eye for an eye” is never truly followed, but following it in theory does more harm than good.

Retributive punishment has been shown to be ineffective. Crime has not been reduced by tough on crime policies, which is demonstrated by the fact that recidivism rates run on levels ranginging from 50 percent to 68 percent for non-violent crimes and 60 percent for violent crimes. Retributive punishment may also destroy people that once functioned in society. It takes prisoners and their income away from their families, prevents them from getting a job in the future, and requires them to battle a stigma that labels them as an “ex-con.” And if they are mentally ill, have a substance abuse disorder or are impoverished, harsh punishment further prevents those individuals from moving forward.

Instead of retribution, JUST has advocated for a restorative approach, which focuses on rehabilitation and reconciliation of crimes. “Someone can do something wrong and still deserve help,” noted Professor Goodman, while discussing restorative justice strategies. These strategies include victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing, financial restitution to victims, community service and written or verbal apologies to victims. Restorative justice allows for criminals to repair their reputation with the community and learn from their mistakes. It removes the arbitrary moral judgements that often come with retributive punishment, and allows individuals to seek a fresh start.

This discussion of extreme punishment can make activist work seem impossible. “The criminal justice system is a disaster. And if you look around, it’ll break your heart. If you tackle it all, you’ll go mad,” said Professor Pfaff. Looking back at Barton’s memorial page, there’s a picture of him and his brother smiling wide and proud. It’s difficult to look at it without a feeling of deep sadness, knowing that someone so friendly and vulnerable was disproportionately punished for their crime.

Barton’s legacy has not been forgotten. Fred Akshar, incumbent senator for the 52nd district of New York, was challenged by a grassroots campaign, who wrote in Salladin Barton’s name. Akshar served as the county sheriff during the time of Barton’s death, and it has remained a dark spot in his career. While there is more work to do, the mistreatment of inmates in Broome County jail does not go unnoticed. “It’s not all gloom and doom,” said Revier, who noted the activist work JUST has done. They are working on a community oversight committee, continue to talk to inmates and have organized protests.

It’s important to remember that mass incarceration and the abuse of inmates in Broome County is a systemic issue, connected to racism, poverty, drug epidemics, and a faulty justice system. Broome County is representative of a larger plague that has overcome the United States. Fixing it starts with large activist networks like JUST, as well as a continued conversation between experts and those willing to learn. “A society with less crime and less punishment is possible,” said Professor Goodman. And while we’re far from that, there’s still hope. Salladin Barton did not die in vain: he is a martyr of a growing movement.

Stephen Perez is a sophomore Political Science major from The State University of New York at Binghamton.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion. The cover photo is courtesy of Jonathan Flores of PipeDream. It was taken of community members and students protesting against the conditions in Broome County Jail. “Why so many deaths?’ and “Why so little justice?” are some of the many questions activists are seeking answers to.

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