The Clinton, NY, Prison Experiment

Last month I headed to my local cinema to see "The Stanford Prison Experiment," based, of course, on Prof. Phlilp Zimbardo's 1971 psychology investigation of the effects of a simulated carceral setting on average college students. The experiment, scheduled to last two weeks, had to be shut down after six days because of the rampant abuses and potential for further escalation.

I contemplated walking out of the theater after 25 minutes (and only two days into the film's plot) not because the film was bad, but, quite the contrary, I was deeply affected, forced to confront the fact that, separated by some 2500 miles and 44 years, there were occurring in my own home state of New York abuses far worse than those inflicted by the comparatively unimaginative young men enlisted in the experiment.

Earlier this year, three guards at Attica Correctional Facility were allowed to plead guilty of misdemeanor conduct for the savage and near-death beating of George Williams. The guards were not terminated, but instead allowed to resign, and therefore will keep their pensions. I worry what this augurs for the investigation of the recent brutal beating deaths of Karl Taylor at hands of guards at Sullivan Correctional Facility and Samuel Harrell at Fishkill.

On Friday, September 4, the Correctional Association of New York (CANY) released a report of abuses described by interviewed incarcerated persons at Clinton Correctional Facility. The accounts are as appalling as they are consistent: torturous routines of suffocation, broken bones and teeth, and months, years, even decades, of imposed solitary confinement. And this is at only one facility. In recent years, the Correctional Association -- the state's only non-governmental organization with a court-ordered mandate to monitor conditions and chronicle human rights violations in New York prisons -- has thoroughly documented similar abuses at the Attica, Greene, and Fishkill facilities.

A light must be shined on a systemic culture of brutality which appears to be escalating. On March 4, the New York Times called on the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an Attica investigation, which in fact began two months later ("Abuse at Attica Calls for Federal Scrutiny"). In the wake of the Harrell and Taylor deaths, on August 18, the CANY called for an expansion of that investigation to include the entire correctional system.

Over recent years, the crescendo of reports of inadequacies, abuses, and inefficiencies in our nation's system of corrections clearly indicate that it is broken. New York State, a national leader in so many other aspects, would be as appropriate as any place for repair to begin.

Samuel Kelton Roberts, Jr. (twitter: @SamuelKRoberts) is the Director of the Columbia University Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) and Associate Professor of History and Sociomedical Sciences