The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons – The New York Times

Good but disturbing investigative reporting:

Most forbidding are the maximum-security penitentiaries — Attica, Clinton, Great Meadow — in rural areas where the population is almost entirely white and nearly every officer is too. The guards who work these cellblocks rarely get to know a black person who is not behind bars.

Whether loud and vulgar or insinuated and masked, racial bias in the state prison system is a fact of life.

It is also measurable.

A review by The New York Times of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions found that racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.

In most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites — in some cases twice as often, the analysis found. They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations. At Clinton, a prison near the Canadian border where only one of the 998 guards is African-American, black inmates were nearly four times as likely to be sent to isolation as whites, and they were held there for an average of 125 days, compared with 90 days for whites.

A greater share of black inmates are in prison for violent offenses, and minority inmates are disproportionately younger, factors that could explain why an inmate would be more likely to break prison rules, state officials said. But even after accounting for these elements, the disparities in discipline persisted, The Times found.

The disparities were often greatest for infractions that gave discretion to officers, like disobeying a direct order. In these cases, the officer has a high degree of latitude to determine whether a rule is broken and does not need to produce physical evidence. The disparities were often smaller, according to the Times analysis, for violations that required physical evidence, like possession of contraband.

Blacks make up only 14 percent of the state’s population but almost half of its prisoners. Racial inequities at the front end of the criminal justice system — arrest, conviction and sentencing — have been well documented.

The degree of racial inequity and its impact in the prison system as documented by The Times have rarely, if ever, been investigated. Nor are these issues systematically tracked by state officials. But for black inmates, what happens inside can be profoundly damaging.

Bias in prison discipline has a ripple effect — it prevents access to jobs and to educational and therapeutic programs, diminishing an inmate’s chances of being paroled. And each denial is likely to mean two more years behind bars.

A Times analysis of first-time hearings before the State Board of Parole over a three-year period ending in May found that one in four white inmates were released but fewer than one in six black inmates were.

Source: The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons – The New York Times

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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