The Death and Short Life of Samuel Harrell
“There are a few things that people don’t know about my brother Samuel Harrell. He wasn’t just an inmate,” Cerissa Harrell tells a group of nearly 50 prepared to blockade the Dutchess County District Attorney’s office on Poughkeepsie’s very public Main Street. Cerissa stands with Diane Harrell, Samuel’s widow. Hands intertwined, Cerissa continues, “Sam’s life was stolen from him. He was only 30 years old. He had so much more life to live.”
In April 2014, Samuel Harrell was sentenced to eight years for one count of criminal sale of a controlled substance. He was later transferred to Fishkill in January of 2015. Though Fishkill is not just a medium security prison, but also a mental health facility, Harrell received no medical attention after signs of depression and paranoia were reported by another inmate. The night of April 21, housing unit B-Center was in an uproar ignited by Harrell attempting to walk away from his cell; he believed that his family had arrived to take him home. His family wasn’t there. Harrell was killed in the Fishkill Correctional Facility by nearly 20 correctional officers known as the “Beat Up Squad.”
I stand close enough to Cerissa and Diane to hear them pass deep breaths back and forth as they attempt to thoroughly evoke the significance of their brother, husband. I stand with the Poughkeepsie organizers, Samuel Harrell’s family and friends, and members of the local community. We are here to demand justice for Harrell. In that moment, my mind is consumed with the question, when we say that Black Lives Matter, do we remember the one million black lives currently incarcerated?
The group stands in unwavering silence as Cerissa makes a promise to her brother. “We will not stop fighting until we get you the justice you deserve,” she says, “We will keep fighting until no one else will.” For the Harrell family, they have no choice. They feel this loss with every fiber of their beings, and with that pain comes a commitment to tenacious acts of loving and remembering the man they’ve lost.
The night of Samuel Harrell’s death was one of unimaginable violence and cruelty.
Harrell was unarmed when he was killed in Fishkill Correctional Facility. In 19 signed and sworn affidavits, inmates report hearing screaming. Harrell did not lunge; he was not intoxicated. He was unarmed. He made no threats. Inmates recall feeling the walls shake.
Harrell was outnumbered twenty to one. One officer tackled Harrell to ground, dug his right knee into his back, punching him in the face with his right fist. Reports say Harrell never resisted. One inmate was in earshot, as officers yelled at Harrell, who was cuffed, “You fucking nigger.” A CO tried to balance himself on the back of Harrell’s head and neck. A pack of officers swarmed him, throwing punches and kicks until his body went limp. His body lay bent in an impossible position, eyes open, not looking at anything. “The senseless behavior shown by the correctional officers was inhuman,” Samuel Harrell Sr. said. “ He was handcuffed. This was a criminal act.”
Fishkill’s Sergeant Joseph Guarino, who witnessed the killing and reportedly took no action, was obligated to call medical attention since the victim was unresponsive. There was no effort to resuscitate. His lifeless body was thrown down a flight of stairs, and a call was made for an inmate to clean up the blood left on the floor while Harrell’s body was removed in a wheelchair, covered in a torn white sheet.
An inmate remembers: “His feet were in black socks, but I saw [them] scraping the floor.”
Later, officers posted signs that read: “On April 21, 2015 at approximately 8:30 pm, this convict was so stoned that he assaulted numerous officers, sending two of them to the outside hospital…The convict ended up deceased.”
The convict ended up deceased. Ended up.
The Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office performed the autopsy. They ruled Harrell’s death a homicide spurred by “physical altercation with corrections officers.” They found no illegal drugs in Harrell’s system. The District Attorney has filed no criminal charges against the officers responsible for his death.
In Baltimore, the city I’m from, black men, women, trans people, and children are routinely targeted by the police. Cop cars roam blocks full of children drawing their names on the ground in chalk. Officers park their cars on corners monitoring friends and family in warm embrace. In Baltimore, Freddie Gray made eye contact with a police officer, and ran, clutching the now-inherent suspiciousness of his black life firmly. Gray was brutalized, handcuffed, and thrown violently in the backseat of a cop car.
The price of his life? Settled. $6.4 million dollars.
The price of wandering eyes while black? Nearly six and a half million dollars, a city fractured, and a generation taught to keep their heads low to the ground. We have become desensitized to death. We often forget that with death should come the remembrance of life. Harrell and Gray once lived fully in homes, on blocks, and in cities that matter, cities that do not forget. Hundreds and hundreds of families mourn and ache. These killings are not arbitrary, nor should these lives be understood as inconsequential to the American public.
Harrell’s family traveled from North Carolina, Texas, and Kingston, New York to attend a news conference on Wednesday, September 9. They stood before reporters, ready to tell his story, in matching shirts that depicted a smiling Harrell placed before angel wings. The shirts read, “Celebrating the life of Samuel D. Harrell, III.”
Harrell’s father shared words with the crowd. “Every day I wake up,” he began, “and thank God for another day.” A daily reminder that living while black in this country is volatile. He described the physical, psychological, and emotional pain he and his family endure grieving and remembering. “I’m his father,” he said before ending, “I feel like I should have passed before him. I’m burying my son.”
At 30, Harrell was an inmate in Fishkill Correctional Facility, but his potential for life, for continued living, extended far beyond the cold confinement of incarceration. His incarcerated status did not warrant a death sentence. The correctional officers committed an act of thievery, and claimed entitlement to a life, to a father, to a brother, a son. His life was not for the taking. And the manner in which they took it is brutal beyond comprehension.
The officers responsible for Harrell’s death are members of the self-titled Beat Up Squad. Most inmates don’t know all of the names of these vigilante officers, because they wear no identification.
Ricky Rodriguez, a man formerly incarcerated in Fishkill and other facilities told me, “The Beat Up Squad is a group of [Correctional Officers] with a lot of ego.” In reports spanning back nearly a decade, inmates articulate in detail a gang of COs roaming the Fishkill Facility and terrorizing inmates.
“In the prison,” Rodriguez continued, “the Beat Up Squad functions as an organization” who select certain COs they consider to be a fair match to an inmate’s size—it’s called the “size up.” This group then stages an altercation to test how much they can verbally and physically abuse a particular inmate.
By this logic, Fishkill Correctional Facility unofficially condones informal, violent sparring matches initiated by individuals whose job is to prevent disruption.
In Attica, a similar group exists. They call themselves the Black Glove. At Great Meadow Correctional Facility, in Comstock, New York, they terrorize without a title.
“You just know who they are,” Rodriguez says.
I ask him, “Were you afraid?”
Standing just above six feet, with swollen biceps, he responds, “Yes I was.”
“Because I felt like at any time I could be next.”
Harrell’s attorneys from Beldock Levine & Hoffman announced that they would pursue a federal civil rights lawsuit against the New York State Office of Mental Health, the Department of Corrections, and the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association.
By not pressing charges, the state is permitting members of the Beat Up Squad to exist above the law and commit acts of unfathomable cruelty. The Beat Up Squad who, with their fists, feet, and elbows, took the air from a man formerly permitted to inhale and exhale freely, are sacrosanct.
As we prepared to march, I wondered had Harrell been a white man, would his life have been taken? Could twenty people have publically beaten a person to death on Main Street in Poughkeepsie, New York? If he was not a black incarcerated man, would Governor Andrew Cuomo have neglected to respond to his family’s pleas for acknowledgement and action?
This atrocity, while nearly impossible to stomach, is not unique. The Guardian reports that, as of today, 837 people have been killed by law enforcement. Blacks have been killed at a rate more than two times that of whites. Harrell’s death is part of a larger phenomenon.
“Our family and our community are broken and will never be the same,” Diane Harrell tells us. “I can only hope that Sam is at peace. And I can only pray that the people responsible for Sam’s death will be held accountable.”
There are 54 correctional facilities in the state of New York confining more than 77,000 inmates. The events at Fishkill demonstrate that these inmates are not safe. The consumption and destruction of black life is inseparably woven into the fabric of the façade that we call American life. Each of us maintains our private investment in its function, until it becomes too painful, until we watch it work too well on one of our own.
“I can promise,” Diane Harrell continues, “that we will not rest until there is justice for Sam.”
Kali Tambreé is from Baltimore and tries to remember every day that Audre Lorde wrote, “I feel, therefore I can be free.”
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]