When a jail sentence becomes a death sentence

Joan McKiernan reports from upstate New York on a protest against conditions of abuse and neglect at the Broome County jail.

Activists rally against mass incarceration in Broome County, New York (Joan McKiernan | SW)Activists rally against mass incarceration in Broome County, New York (Joan McKiernan | SW)

"CLOSE IT down!"

Calls to end mass incarceration and close the county jail greeted visitors to the Broome County Sheriff's "Open Day" in Binghamton, New York, on September 20. Supporters of Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST) were on hand to protest against the vicious abuse of people who end up in the jail.

In the last six years, seven people have died while in the jail. Others suffered illness when medical treatment was denied--still others endured solitary confinement. Teens are kept in lockup 23 hours a day.

Former jail inmates and relatives of imprisoned people joined the protest, telling stories of their many terrible experiences. Theresa Harris was very emotional when she spoke to the crowd, saying, "We didn't have support like this when my mother was killed 30 years ago." Harris' mother, Shirley, was pregnant with her sixth child when she was found hanged in her cell after being arrested on a disorderly conduct charge.

There were protests when Salladin Barton died in 2015 at the age of 36. Before his death, he wrote, "The guards are going to kill me. You gotta get me outta here." A lawsuit against the county for his death is ongoing.

After Barton's death, activists found what they say are other "unexplained" deaths at the jail hidden away in official records. As one of the protest signs read, "A jail sentence=a death sentence." Despite the number of deaths, and a growing number of lawsuits, neither Sheriff David Harder nor other county officials have been willing to acknowledge that there is a problem.

As JUST member Andy Pragacz explained at the rally, "Mass incarceration lives right here in Broome County." He said that the county has the highest incarceration rate of any in New York State.

Bill Martin, a member of JUST, explained that the prison population in upstate New York is mushrooming. The jail population has increased by over 30 percent over the last 20 years, JUST has discovered, even though crime is way down.

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POVERTY, RACISM, substance abuse and government policies are to blame for this spike in incarceration.

Broome County and the city of Binghamton have been slashing budgets for mental health services--the local mental health clinic has been closed, the county mental health budget slashed by 66 percent.

However, the county found $6 million to expand the jails. So, instead of treatment, the mentally ill end up in jail. These policies have all contributed to the high rate of incarceration and to the resulting deaths, illnesses, family stress and increased poverty.

Tinamarie Gunther told the crowd, "We are poor. If we were not poor, my husband would not be in jail." She explained that her husband took a plea deal because he did not have money to get bail, and would have spent longer in jail if he had waited for a trial.

She explained how difficult it was to help him. "You have to pay for phone calls," she said, adding that every three months she has to raise money to travel hundreds of miles to visit him.

Others reported that inmates at the jail have to pay more for their own medicine than the drug store would charge; one Ibuprofen tablet reportedly costs $2.

Seventy-five percent of the people in the jail have not been convicted of any crime. Broome County has a high poverty rate--18 percent compared to the national rate of nearly 15 percent. Median incomes are low; unemployment high. Despite this, bail often is set so high that people can't afford to make it.

Gunther explained that bail is often set at $50,000 cash, or $100,000 for those who have assets, like a house. There are no bail bondsmen operating here, however.

Bill Martin concluded, "They are running a poor and debtor's prison."

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JUST MEMBERS pointed out that racial disparity is deeply rooted in the criminal justice system. While only 5 percent of the population in Broome County is Black, African Americans make up 28 percent of all jail admittances--10 times higher than for the white and Latino populations.

While the system is good at putting people in jail, it fails at caring for them. Protesters spoke of horrific abuses, including jail officials refusing or delaying medicine and treatment. According to Gunther, jail officials would not believe her husband when he reported that he had already had four heart attacks. "They said, 'He's too young to have a heart attack.'" He had another heart attack while in jail, but was not treated.

One young man reportedly lay in a coma for 10 days while in jail. Another man allegedly was found to have a sexually transmitted infection when he was booked into the jail, but had to wait 30 days for treatment.

Adding to incarceration rates is the opioid epidemic currently devastating communities across the U.S. "The center is right here," said Pragacz.

Sherriff Harder has stated that communities can't incarcerate their way out of the opioid crisis--but as Pragacz noted, in Broome County, "they sure are gonna try."

Earlier this year, Broome County Executive Jason Garnar declared the opioid epidemic a "public health emergency" and promised all sorts of services. But instead of treating the opioid epidemic, officials are just jailing it.

There were 76 deaths in 2016 from overdoses that Garner said could have been prevented with proper treatment services. So where are the services?

JUST noted that people continue to arrested and incarcerated for low-level drug offences. While drug felony arrests have declined, the arrests for drug misdemeanors have risen sharply since 2012. The evidence is there--Broome County is using the jail, rather than treatment, to deal with the crisis.

Recently, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared, "I'm going to go down in the history books as the governor who closed the most prisons in the history of the state of New York, and I am proud of it. I want to close more prisons with more alternatives to incarceration."

The experiences of those who have been incarcerated in Broome County, their families and supporters, however, makes nonsense of this claim.

Mass incarceration is thriving in upstate New York--but with their enthusiastic chanting, the protestors made clear to all that "Jails won't solve poverty. Jails won't solve racism. Jails won't solve heroin addiction. Jails won't solve anything! So close it down!"