Why is Rafael Peña dead?

August 6, 2015

Lichi D’Amelio reports on the death of Rafael Peña behind bars, and his family's demand for answers.

ON JULY 21, Lily Pachardo of Brooklyn made the trek up to the town of Fishkill in Dutchess County, New York, to visit her son, Rafael Peña. Accompanied by her daughter, they were disheartened to learn that they wouldn't be able to see Rafael, an inmate at the Downstate Correctional Facility there, because he had been moved to a segregated area of the prison known as "the box" and was denied visiting privileges. Turned away, they headed back home.

Two days later, Pachardo received a call from prison authorities telling her that her son was dead, with no further explanation. "I want to know why my son is dead," his mother wept as she spoke to PIX11 News. While the Department of Corrections claims that Rafael was found hanging in his cell, "Nothing that they told me I wanted to hear, because I know that my son did not kill himself," Pachardo said.

Downstate is a maximum-security prison where Rafael was serving a two-and-a-half year sentence for "criminal possession of a controlled substance," considered a Class B felony. He was just 26 years old, had already served over half of that time and was set to be released next year. Pachardo even received a letter from her son--the day after she'd received the horrifying phone call--that conveyed excitement about his upcoming release and enthusiasm about getting his life back on the outside.

"My son was a good person, " Pachardo said. "He loved his son, he loved his sister, he loved me, he loved his girl. And I know that this is not what he would have wanted for us to be suffering. In no way in that letter did my son seem to be like a person who would do something to himself like that."

Thus far, Pachardo hasn't received any answers. The official cause of death is still pending, but given what is already known about the barbaric conditions inside virtually every prison and jail in this country, and the recent, high-profile death of Sandra Bland--also said to have been found hanging in her Texas jail cell a few days after being arrested when she failed to signal before changing lanes--there is more than enough reason to suspect foul play.

AS YET, there is little information available about Rafael's case, but the Black Lives Matter movement has helped to further expose not only the circumstances of a number of cases that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, it has also helped to shatter the illusion that police officers can be taken at their word.

Those brave enough to film the cops during "routine encounters"--like Ramsey Orta, who filmed NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Eric Garner to death, or Feidin Santana, whose camera phone caught North Charleston officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back, contradicting Slager's story--have done the movement an invaluable service by confirming that police officers kill people even when it's clear that their lives are not in any danger. Of course, sometimes the movement has to demand the release of police body camera footage to catch officers in a lie, as was the case with University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing who shot 43-year-old Samuel DuBose within seconds of stopping him for driving without a front license plate.

This culture of brutality and lying extends beyond the police to correctional officers as well--though correctional officers usually have the cover of impenetrable prison walls to protect them from any citizens who happen to be nearby with cellphones handy. In complete control of their domain, and aided by the public perception that anyone behind bars is automatically less deserving of any sympathy, correctional officers are able to exert an enormous amount of power--and pain--over those they've been charged with controlling on a daily basis.

Still, a growing number of cases provide a glimpse at the daily brutality that goes on behind America's many prison walls. The case of George Williams, beaten nearly to death by three Attica prison guards, resulted in their indictments--the first time in New York State history any correctional officers have been charged with a non-sexual assault

Even more recently, two Rikers Island guards were charged after beating 52-year-old Ronald Spear, a mentally ill man, to death and attempting to cover it up.

And, tragically, there is the case of Kalief Browder, who--tormented by the three years he spent at Rikers waiting for a trial and the beatings he endured by correctional officers and other inmates--took his own life after his release.

We don't yet know what happened to Rafael Peña. But, we do know that he was serving time for a non-violent drug charge and he ended up in a solitary confinement cell, where, somehow, he died. These facts alone point to a sickening system of so-called "justice" that metes out jail time for no good reason, brutalizes people behind bars, destroys lives, and tears families apart.

By all accounts, Rafael was a young man who had a lot to live for, and his family deserves our support. The movement in New York City should stand alongside Lily Pachardo and the rest of Rafael's family to demand answers and accountability.

Further Reading

From the archives