Commentary

A familiar story of death in custody

Seven days…

Over several days in October 2009, a young man in handcuffs, escorted on either side by  stone-faced officers or guards, was taken from his cell to court, from court back to jail, from jail to a hospital and eventually to a prison infirmary. His narrow face was covered with purple bruises, his eyes were swollen and blackened, and his body was hunched over.

Neither Cucchi nor his custodians, knew that he had two broken vertebrae and ruptured internal organs; he told another cellmate that his injuries were the result of a beating from two police officers shortly after his arrest.

By Day Seven, 31-year old Stefano Cucchi, dehydrated and emaciated, was dead.

Cucchi, an architectural draftsman, had a history of drug use and epileptic seizures. Medical experts said that these factors contributed to his death. His injuries, they said, were the result of a fall.

According to an article this month in The Laziali:

“(A) trial, which ended in June of 2013, found four doctors from the Sandro Pertini hospital guilty of manslaughter and another guilty of making a false statement. The court acquitted six others, including nurses and prison guards, with the court finding that they had not contributed to Cucchi’s death…

“(An) appeal hearing overturned the decision of the lower court and acquitted all those accused of wrongdoing in the Cucchi case…

“Prosecutors are now saying Cucchi was unlawfully killed. It is believed that three members of Italy’s Carabinieri police who arrested Cucchi are allegedly responsible for punching, slapping and kicking him. There’s no news on when this will appear in court, although the other officers appear to have lied to cover up for their colleagues violent treatment of Cucchi.”

Bad memories

So why do I care about a death that occurred in Italy almost ten years ago?

Well, last week, I viewed the Netflix original movie, “On My Skin,” based on this case and was profoundly saddened by Cucchi’s ordeal.

It called to mind the 2015 death of 25–year old Freddie Gray in Baltimore; he suffered a broken neck when he was transported, handcuffed with legs shackled, unrestrained in a police van. He died a week later. Six officers were charged, but acquitted.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not, bring civil rights charges against the officers. In 2017, The Baltimore Sun reported that after “an extensive review of this tragic event, conducted by career prosecutors and investigators,” officials concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that the officers involved in Gray’s arrest “willfully violated” his civil rights.”

In July 2013, Sandra Bland, a 28-year old black woman was stopped by state trooper, Brian Encinia, for a traffic violation in Waller County, Texas (while she was driving to a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University). After a verbal exchange and scuffle with the officer, Bland was arrested for “assaulting an officer.”

Three days later, she was found hanged in her cell. Her death was ruled a suicide. Bland’s family said that it was unlikely that she would have killed herself. Although a grand jury declined to indict Encinia, he was convicted of perjury (for false statements he made about the arrest); he is no longer in law enforcement.

A personal loss

In the early morning hours of June 14, 1999, a correctional officer discovered my son, Damon Anthony Moyler, non-responsive in his cell at Wende Correctional Facility in upstate New York. He was transported to the local medical center, where doctors pronounced him dead at age 35.

At no time, did the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision contact me regarding the events surrounding his death. In a telephone conversation with the deputy warden, I was assured that I would receive a formal report about his death. It never came.

In July 2005, I requested that the NY State Commission of Correction (responsible for “mortality investigations”) send me any reports related to my son’s death.

The response: “Please be advised that on January 24, 2000, both the Commission and Medical Review Board administratively closed the…investigation without a final report and as such the Commission currently maintains no documents responsive to your request.”

Despite no history of heart trouble or asthma, his death certificate states the “immediate cause of death” as “Cardiomyopathy with sudden fatal arrhythmia.”

The “Other (sic) significant condition contributing to death but not related to cause given in Part 1” was listed as “Bronchial asthma.”

Several months later, I interviewed his friend (who had been housed on the same cell block), who told me that most of the inmates on D-block disputed the prison’s account of events. He said that he was surprised when he heard the cause of death because Damon had never shown signs of poor health.

Unfortunately, I will never know exactly happened to my, otherwise healthy, son that morning. Foul play or a natural death?

Official apathy

What these incidents have in common is the seeming reluctance of correctional officials, police departments, prosecutors, grand juries, or federal authorities to aggressively pursue investigations or, when warranted, bring charges against (and convict) those responsible for persons in custody.

Consequently, it is not unreasonable for the families of those in jails or prisons to fear for the safety of their loved ones or to mistrust official inquiries into a death or physical assault.

Too often, it seems, men and women with drug histories, with mental illness or criminal records are deemed less worthy of empathy–in life and in death, no matter the country they live in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Commentary

Privacy Lost

Most of my life I have protested against or advocated for one cause or another, from ending apartheid in South Africa to reforming America’s criminal justice system, hardly radical stuff.

In the late sixties, my children attended a Harlem (New York) public elementary school; then one of the lowest ranked in the city.

To address the issue, I joined with several like-minded parents to urge removal of its principal. We argued our position at local school board meetings, raised awareness at PTA meetings, and distributed position papers.

Despite our good intentions, we met strong resistance from some teachers and parents who labeled us “troublemakers.”

Ultimately, we succeeded, and I learned the power of community action, protest, and citizen activism.

Over the years, I have jokingly remarked that I am probably on some government watch list.

I no longer consider this a joke.

Criticism of government, corporations, or institutions is likely to get you “tagged,”  sued, maybe even arrested, for views and opinions expressed in texts, e-mails, v-logs, blogs, chats, or on Facebook and Twitter.

Shared personal data can be accessed by marketers or law enforcement, hopefully for benign purposes.

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, has serious concerns over government collection of personal data:

“Government surveillance of social media can have serious consequences, whether you’re a U.S. citizen, a lawful resident, or are seeking to immigrate to or visit the United States. The FBI appears to be using social media as a basis for deciding who to interview, investigate, or target with informants or undercover agents. A single Facebook post or tweet may be all it takes to place someone on a watch list, with effects that can range from repeated, invasive screening at airports to detention and questioning in the United States or abroad. And non-citizens subject to the Trump administration’s “extreme vetting” policies could be denied entry to the United States or face difficulty becoming lawful residents or naturalized citizens.”

Food for Thought

  • Facebook Gave Device Makers Deep Access to Data on Users and Friends(New York Times, 6/3/18“Facebook has reached data-sharing partnerships with at least 60 device makers — including Apple, Amazon, BlackBerry, Microsoft and Samsung — over the last decade, starting before Facebook apps were widely available on smartphones, company officials said…You might think that Facebook or the device manufacturer is trustworthy,” said Serge Egelman, a privacy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the security of mobile apps. “But the problem is that as more and more data is collected on the device — and if it can be accessed by apps on the device — it creates serious privacy and security risks.”
  • The NSA Managed to Collect 500 Million U.S. Call Records in 2017” (Gizmodo.com, 5/4/18)  “In the first full year of the Trump administration, the National Security Agency really went all out in efforts to surveil Americans. According to a new report released Friday, the agency sucked up more than 534 million US phone records in 2017, three times the amount it collected in 2016…While it might not seem like much, metadata can be quite revealing. The information itself is supposedly anonymous, but it can easily be used to identify an individual. The information can also be paired with other publicly available information from social media and other sources to paint a surprisingly detailed picture of a person’s life.
  • “You Don’t Have To Be a Star To Be Sued Like One (hubinternational.com, 5/3/17) As is the case with a popular things, with the increased reach of professional blogging comes a greater incidence of lawsuits and claims. The Media Law Resource Center estimated that there were $17.4 million in court judgments made against bloggers by the end of 2014…The biggest risks that bloggers with large followings face are, according to Bankrate, claims of libel, defamation of character, copyright infringement, and invasion of privacy. Depending on the blog in question, harassment and trademark infringement could also pose a risk, as well as charges of bodily injury resulting from products recommended in professional blogs. However, the biggest danger to bloggers comes from the fact that blogging cases don’t have the same legal precedent that more traditional media might have; in fact, courts have been very inconsistent about cases and the application of the First Amendment to blogging cases.”

Now, I don’t believe that my blog, Facebook, or Twitter posts are so cogent, provocative, or widespread that I pose a security threat.

Nonetheless, I do recognize that my political views, personal data, or postings could someday land me in trouble, or worse, in handcuffs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Commentary

Why do mothers support incarcerated sons?

Years ago, when my 20-year old son was locked up at New York’s infamous Rikers Island, I would visit regularly despite the long commute from Brooklyn to Queens, two or three hour waits in the crowded, noisy reception area, and short, but bumpy, rides on dilapidated buses to various “houses” on the island; most times, I had just completed an 8-hour workday.

My landlord at the time–an obnoxious, nosy man–once questioned why I bothered to visit my son. “If he did the crime, I’d let him do the time.”

At the time, his words irritated me; however, in retrospect, I think his comment reflected the opinion of the public, and even, some family and friends.

Nonetheless, I had promised myself, I would not–could not–abandon my son to the custody and control of the city’s notorious jail system.

Like my former landlord, others might wonder mothers continue to support sons involved in the criminal justice system, often in the face of societal disapproval.

The answers are as varied as the mothers themselves.

One mother might have a son with a mental illness–often a factor in the commission of a crime–who worries about how he will fare in jail or prison if appropriate treatment/medication is not available.

Another mother might have a juvenile son tried as an as an adult and sentenced to time in a dangerous adult correctional facility, probably hours away from her community.

A mother could have a son who did not commit the criminal act for which he was arrested but was at the scene. She wonders why he received the same 10-year sentence as the perpetrators.

Our rationale for standing by them is simple. Our sons need advocates.

In spite of their wrong choices or bad acts, we nurture the hope that our sons’ lives can be salvaged.

For much of the public, the term, “inmate,” evokes images of violent, (mostly) black young men with gang affiliations, drug histories, broken families, or low morals.

Hence, many politicians see no need for sentencing or bail reform, increased drug rehabilitation funding, in-prison job training or educational programs. No need for comprehensive post-release assistance or services.

As mothers of incarcerated sons, we do not see our sons as state-issued ID “numbers,” but as “Junior” or “Davey,” or “Little Man.”

We remember our sons’ 6th Grade Math Award or love for animals or dream of playing for the NBA.

We are not apologists for them, but know that when wives, girlfriends, buddies, or relatives, stop visiting or communicating, we are left to bolster fragile egos.

Criminal justice research shows that when inmates lack contact with family, they are more likely to create discipline problems for prison administrators or suffer depression.

Often I was afraid to upset my son by denying him some request or by not providing everything he wanted; I had not learned that I could not save him from the hardships of prison by acceding to all his demands.

The most I could do was reassure him that he was loved and that better days were possible.

Unfortunately, in 1999, my son died prematurely in prison, so I can only imagine what his future might have held.

I take comfort in the knowledge that he knew that I was always there for him.

Having a son in prison can be all-consuming emotionally, psychologically, even physically, yet mothers muster the strength to carry on.

That’s just what we do.