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Vol. 78/No. 13      April 7, 2014

Deaths in NY jail draw attention
to reality of US capitalist ‘justice’
(front page)
NEW YORK — The Feb. 15 death of Jerome Murdough, 56, has put the spotlight on conditions at Rikers Island prison complex here and the U.S. “justice” system.

Murdough was arrested for trespassing after cops saw him sleeping in a public housing stairwell on a cold night Feb. 7. The homeless man was sent to Rikers and placed in a mental-observation unit where he was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes. But temperatures in the cell reached at least 100 degrees. “He basically baked to death,” one official said. Prison authorities say heaters malfunctioned.

Overheated cells are common in the prison, Joaquan Smalls told the Militant outside the prison March 23. “A lot of times the cells were so hot my throat dried up,” said Smalls, 21, who was released from Rikers a few weeks ago after charges against him were dismissed.

Three Rikers guards were indicted March 7 for assaulting Carl Williams a year ago and then covering it up after Williams cursed at them for confiscating a bag of food.

On March 24 former Captain Terrance Pendergrass was arrested on charges that he deliberately let inmate Jason Echevarria die after Echevarria, who had psychological problems, ingested cleaning powder. When guards reported that Echevarria required medical attention, Pendergrass replied that he didn’t want to be bothered unless the guards needed help with extracting the inmate from his cell or if there was a dead body, according to the Daily News.

While such incidents have recently gotten some media attention, abuse by prison authorities is a daily occurrence, Smalls said. “I’ve seen guards punch prisoners in the face just for talking back. Sometimes prisoners fight back.”

Rikers Island is one of the largest jail complexes in the U.S., with a daily population of nearly 12,000, most of them awaiting a verdict or sentencing. According to the New York Times, the use of force by guards there has jumped nearly 240 percent over the last decade.

The proportion of prisoners at Rikers diagnosed with mental illness has doubled to 40 percent in the last eight years, the Times said. According to the Huffington Post, state governments cut spending on mental health by $4.35 billion from 2009 to 2012.

Between 1972 and 2000 the imprisonment rate in the U.S. increased fivefold. Capitalist politicians, Democrats and Republican alike, strove to outdo each other with demagogic calls for more convictions and stiffer sentences. The “war on drugs” that began in the 1970s, mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes and you’re out laws of the 1980s and ’90s and what the Times calls placing “the justice system almost entirely in the hands of prosecutors” all played a role in the skyrocketing numbers of workers behind bars. By the end of 2010, 3 percent of Black men were in prison.

A hunger strike by 30,000 prisoners in California last year against solitary confinement and other abuses won public attention and sympathy. And the consequences of unprecedented rates of incarceration and the blatant character of the justice system’s frame-up mill have become a growing social, political and economic problem in the eyes of layers in the U.S. ruling class, spawning books, reports, articles and public debate.

Political problem for U.S. rulers

In the U.S. “the criminal-justice system is a gigantic and ravenous monster that convicts 99.5% of the accused, 97% without trial, because of the corrupt operation of the plea-bargain system,” conservative columnist Conrad Black wrote March 19. “In other civilized countries, defendants do win sometimes, up to nearly 40% of cases in Canada and rather more than that in Britain.” Workers who go to trial in the U.S. for drug cases get sentences three times longer than those who accept a plea bargain.

“My cousin was accused of selling drugs and assault on an officer,” said José, who asked that his last name not be used, while waiting for the bus after visiting hours at Rikers March 23. “But it’s not true.”

“They keep pressuring him to sign a paper to say he’s guilty. They say if he doesn’t sign he’ll be here at least until June because the judge is going on vacation. He’s a permanent resident and they tell him he’s going to have problems with the immigration authorities. The public defenders are not good either. They keep pressuring him to sign too.”

“You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” said Sabrina Cruz, a subway conductor, during a trip back from Rikers to visit her son, “but they treat the inmates and those of us visiting them like we are animals.”

In 2010 Congress revised drug laws, reducing the disparity in sentencing crack cocaine-related crimes compared to those involving powder cocaine from 100-1 to 18-1. Attorney General Eric Holder recently endorsed shortening the average sentence for drug dealers by a year.

The per capita rate of prisoners peaked in 2007 and has declined since, but is still the highest in the world. Today there are more than 2.4 million in prisons and jails, with 7 million more on probation or parole.

Lea Sherman contributed to this article.
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