JOHN KIRIAKOU: New York’s Prison Crisis

Rikers Island has been in the news lately, but Great Meadow Correctional Facility is even worse. 

(Rennett Stowe, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

Much has been written in recent months about the New York City jail at Rikers Island.  The violence is overwhelming there.  Corruption is endemic.  Prisoners die from neglect or from violent acts with regularity. 

But the sad truth is that Rikers is not the worst prison in the world, as many believe.  It’s not even the worst prison in New York.  That would be the Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Washington County, New York.

The most recent statistics released by the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) show that Great Meadow has the highest rate of suicide of any prison in the state, the highest rate of suicide attempts, the highest rate of self-harm and the second-highest rate of staff violence.  These figures point to an ongoing crisis that New York’s politicians have done literally nothing to correct.  And there is no indication whatsoever that federal authorities are willing to get involved. 

The New York Times recently published an article about the situation at Rikers, saying that the rate of self-harm had spiked there to 95 incidents per 1,000 prisoners.  That’s terrible, but the rate of self-harm at Great Meadow is more than 50 percent higher, standing at 155 per 1,000 prisoners. 

A watchdog group reported recently that the prison sees near daily occurrences of guards assaulting prisoners, little protection against extreme heat and persistent medical neglect. 

One current prisoner told a reporter that he had been in solitary confinement, where he saw five separate assaults by guards on prisoners in just one month.  In most of the assaults, he said, multiple guards beat handcuffed or shackled prisoners.  All of the assaulted prisoners he saw were black. 

When a journalist for The Nation magazine asked the DOCCS about assaults against prisoners at Great Meadow, the only response was, “all allegations of inappropriate use of force are investigated promptly and carefully.”  But the DOCCS has refused to release any information or statistics on such incidents since 2016.

A Long History

Great Meadow has long had problems.  A state commission investigating the prison reported in 1976 that it was “the garbage heap of the state prison system.”  Forty-five years later, not much has changed.  Jennifer Scaife, the head of a non-profit prison monitoring group, said that Great Meadow is known as a “hands on” facility, meaning that staff violence is common there.  She said that the place has a “culture of deprivation and a lack of incentive to do well.”

One former Great Meadow prisoner, Rondell Purnell, was able to tell his story to a journalist recently.  He said that the year he spent at the prison was the hardest he ever did in the correctional system. 

Purnell said as an example that there are four seats at every table in the cafeteria, each of which must be occupied before a prisoner can sit at the next available table.  On March 26, 2016, he inadvertently violated this rule. 

“I missed an empty seat and I sat at the next table and started a whole ‘nother table,” he said.  A guard berated him, and Purnell apologized and agreed to move to the other table.  But as he walked out of the cafeteria, he said, the guard pulled him aside and took him to an area under the stairs.  (These are usually “blind spots,” which have no coverage from security cameras.) 

“The last thing I remember,” he said, “I was standing against the wall for a pat-down search.  I woke up under the staircase and in handcuffs.”  He couldn’t open or see out of his right eye, and he could see only partially out of his left.

The guard wrote Purnell up, saying that Parnell had struck him twice and that “force was necessary to prevent further serious assault on my person.”  Purnell was transported to a local hospital by ambulance.  He had to have surgery to reconstruct the right side of his face, and he required six stitches to close the gash over his left eye. 

When he returned to Great Meadow, he was immediately transferred to Upstate Correctional Facility and placed in solitary confinement, where he remained for the next eight months.  The guard was not disciplined.

Interestingly (and perhaps not surprisingly) Great Meadow has the second-lowest rate of grievances against guards.  Why?  Because the grievances are simply not recorded.  Even when a prisoner fills out the paperwork, it tends to mysteriously “disappear.”  And if it doesn’t, the prisoner who filed the complaint is likely looking at a beating.  In the end, there is no justice.

There’s no easy fix for all this, of course.  Corruption is exceedingly difficult to counter when the entire system is infected.  And this isn’t a partisan issue.  New York has been governed by Democratic governors for the past 15-and-a-half years.  Before that, it was the Republicans for 12 years. 

What we need is effective oversight by elected officials, a robust inspector general in the Department of Corrections and prosecutors willing to take on crooked and abusive guards and the administrators who allow them to run rampant. 

Until then, we cannot, we must not, point the finger at other countries and their correctional systems.  We just don’t have the moral authority until we can clean up our own act.

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

15 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: New York’s Prison Crisis

  1. Mike
    April 11, 2022 at 14:11

    There is nothing new in the article. What Kiriakou recommends is already happening and is precisely why the problems he describes exist. There is no actual oversight, an effective IG or even one prosecutor who would take on the very system they are sworn to protect. There are groups working throughout the state of NY to address these issues, yet Kiriakou can’t name one, let alone refer to what they’ve accomplished.

  2. Jim other
    April 11, 2022 at 13:45

    Steven Donziger, lawyer for Ecuador has been put under house arrest . See October 7, 2021, Chris Hedges, under Ecuador.

  3. Ray Peterson
    April 11, 2022 at 09:22

    John Kiriakou’s “Torture killed every single avenue” (,
    is a monumental revelation to the American people, especially at this time of
    U.S./NATO “Lend Lease” arming neo-Nazis in Ukraine, coinciding with the
    Christian week of the Passion.
    Surely this “Christ of God” (Lk.9.20), whom Christians adore as God,
    suffering His horrible torturous death on another empires’ method of execution,
    for the life of all human beings would be ashamed of another empire’s slamming
    a man’s head against a cement wall, water boarding him over eighty times, and
    so destroying his humanity that he would “cry at his CIA interrogator’s approaching
    his cell” in America’s torture chamber in Guantanamo.
    Thanks John for the Easter wake up call.

  4. Rob Roy
    April 10, 2022 at 20:19

    Thanks for a this report. Our prisons are some of the worst in the world. In the 1970s police captains were sent to Israel to learn how the Israelis police their country. They returned having learned how to hate and brutalize. (We’ve suffered ever since.)
    If that can happen why not send our prison wardens to Norway to observe how their prisoners are treated: with respect and kindness and offered many freedoms. One place where murdersers and rapists were housed, the men were taught gardening, a fulfilling endeavor, and could ride their bikes on the beach after a certain number of days. The warden’s parents were murdered by one of his inmates but wardens in Norway treat all prisoners the same. Prisoners have private rooms with kitchenettes and a key to lock their rooms. Some are allowed to go home for visits. Could anything like that happen here? No.
    Why is the US such a hateful country?

    • bluebird
      April 12, 2022 at 17:15

      This is shameful. The US is the worst place to be a prisoner. When someone goes to prison here for any crime, they are treated much worse than an animal. No wonder most are repeat offenders. Please, no more bad news about Russia or China. The US truly is a hateful country. The sad part is, most Americans just don’t care.

  5. Mary Caldwell
    April 10, 2022 at 19:41

    Have never heard a child say…”When I grow up, I want to be a prison guard. ” Many times a fireman but never a guard.

    This article is provides examples of the misuse and corruption of power.

  6. Aaron
    April 10, 2022 at 00:02

    That’s truly appalling and something never covered by the mainstream media, aka “The Ukraine News Network”. Every day that passes by, it’s starting to feel like all of us Americans, or the 99% anyways, are being treated by a sadistic prison guard. There’s something really wrong about what’s going on here, it’s like there are sadists in all levels of authority and elected officials. How else to explain their seemingly strong desire to watch us suffer more and more and more.

  7. evelync
    April 9, 2022 at 09:16

    The role that the piece of shit then governor Rockefeller played at Attica was a shocker for me.

    And that memory of what I now understand is the White Supremacy elitism that feeds our violent foreign policy and is viciously practiced at our prisons. And we just go along with it, scared by the lies about our powerless brothers and sisters.

    We are a criminal enterprise, ladies and gentlemen. The big lies that our MEDIA spouts are the fuck you to the people of this country.

    The Russian “Slavs” and the Chinese “Gooks” are our big target now to complete world domination for Big Whitey.
    Burn the house down. Götterdämmerung a la Dr Strangelove.

    Millions killed and tortured abroad in black and brown and rainbow colored earth peoples, our prisons are the petrie dish of this violence. And btw the victims also include the very soul of this country and everything we touch.

    Victoria Nuland and Joe Biden have been playing footsie with Nazi’s in Ukraine. ..elensky brings a Nazi to speak to the Greek parliament. What was that all about – normalizing Nazi’s? AZOV is your brother….no worries….
    or watch out people of Greece you’ll do what Victoria Nuland orders you to do or else.

    We’ve now punished and humiliated the world’s greatest artists and musicians and even composers long dead if they’re Russian who are meant to suffer along with our whistleblowers….

    There’s a connection to the brutality at this prison and everything that’s going on right now – I’ll leave it to wiser heads among you to untangle the connection but its there….

    • Altruist
      April 10, 2022 at 05:18

      On the topic of Greece:

      Ambassador Pyatt – of Maidan Square fame – left Ukraine to become US Ambassador to Greece in 2016. Now that Greece is safely in Nea Demokratia hands – with SYRIZA put out to pasture – he’ll be moving on to some new assignment. Wonder where to.

      That Greece is no longer considered strategic is reflected by Pyatt’s successor not being a professional but a rather a Democratic Party and Biden megadonor. None other than the infamous George Tsunis, a hotel developer who in 2014 embarrassed himself when appointed by the previous Democratic administration as Ambassador to Norway, a country he had never been to and knew nothing about. He then succeeded in having his appointment rejected by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after not being able to answer very basic questions about the country. Some people in Greece are now considering his appointment there to be an insult.

  8. Anon
    April 9, 2022 at 03:23

    Tnx CN, Mr Kiriakou.
    Sad2 say… believe unlikely DAs in US jurisprudence age of Dept tactics: foreward PD Overcharges… all the better2 extort “guilty” plea deal from defendants. Expect lottle help from That source!

  9. Altruist
    April 9, 2022 at 02:57

    Very good that John Kiriakou is taking on the massive problem of prison reform. Best of luck to him in this crusade.

    The described conditions at New York prisons are really disgusting – sounds like a report of how one of the 20th century’s notorious totalitarian states treated its prisoners.

    Great Meadow’s “highest rate of suicide” is – I think – related to its “second-highest rate of staff violence”. More than likely, most such “suicides” are actually killings carried out by the staff and then dressed up as suicides. Think about the probable background of Epstein’s demise in custody (in a New York jail).

    The humanity and morality of a state can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable populations – and who is more vulnerable than prisoners, who are the ultimate cast-offs of society.

    The attitude of most people is that prisoners “deserve their fate” and that one should “throw away the key”, the more locked up the better. One can go through the full three-year course of an Ivy League law school – in New York, for what it matters – without hearing even one word about prison conditions – which reflects the myopia and indifference inculcated in future leaders and administrators of the system.

  10. Jim other
    April 8, 2022 at 16:40

    Sounds like the great state of New York is competing with Alabama for the worst prison system in the country of US. The courts are corrupt also. Witness the travails of a lawyer who won a case against the great company of Chevron for the country of Ecuador.

    • Bob - Enough
      April 9, 2022 at 10:47

      10-1 it will be privatised soon to protect the “uman rights” of prisoners – go on a tenner on it ?.

      • UncleDoug
        April 9, 2022 at 19:49

        You would lose your bet, Bob. Since 2007, private prisons have been prohibited in New York and state pension funds have disinvested from private prison corporations.

        NY State doesn’t need private sector assistance to mistreat, terrorize and brutalize inmates. ?

    • Me Myself
      April 9, 2022 at 22:49

      I’m thinking Hands Down (I mean hands up) The Big Rotten Apple wins!

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