“Monkeys Don’t Wear Glasses”: Racism In NY State Prisons

The New York Times just published a very disturbing expose, “The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons.”  The racial bias and harassment is directed against correction officers as well as inmates.

Meticulously researched, the article begins:

“The racism can be felt from the moment black inmates enter New York’s upstate prisons.  They describe being called porch monkeys, spear chuckers and worse. There are cases of guards ripping out dreadlocks. One inmate, John Richard, reported that he was jumped at Clinton Correctional Facility by a guard who threatened to ‘serve up some black mashed potatoes with tomato sauce.’


“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.”

Guards and Inmates From Different Worlds

The article exhaustively details the racial disparity in treatment of inmates in the NY state prison system, with metrics galore, and personal interviews.

What jumps out from the article, for which the Times said it reviewed “tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions,” is the stark reality that the racial divide in upstate prisons between guards and inmates reflects the population divide in the localities where the prisons are located.  Upstate NY, as the Times pointed out, is very white, as are virtually all of the correction officers, while the inmate population is in large percentage non-white.

There is no understanding of the others’ culture, lifestyle, or lives.  One inmate said that they were treated “like we’re another species.”  There can be little common ground here, which fosters racism.

Sing Sing:  The “Coveted” Maximum Security Prison

The only state prison in close proximity to NYC, the infamous Sing Sing, is the only maximum prison where the officer/inmate ratio comes close to reflecting the local/downstate demographics.  Accordingly, the metrics show little racial inequity as to inmate treatment as compared to the upstate prisons , leading one inmate to say that “Everyone wants to get to Sing Sing. It’s coveted.”

“No other prison in the state is like Sing Sing. Of the 686 uniformed staff members there, 83 percent are black or Latino, compared with 17 percent for the entire state prison system.”   One inmate said that the guards and inmates “were often” from the same neighborhoods, and “knew city life and were more likely to have black or Hispanic friends.”

“They identify with us,” he said. “They see things from our perspective.”  The head of an inmate advocacy group said that the guards there “see the men as less ‘foreign.’”

White and Black Guards From Different Worlds

Although the bulk of the article deals with racial bias practiced against inmates, a subject that too often does not engender societal concern, it also deals with racial bias and harassment against non-white fellow correction officers – a subject which is within the scope of our blog, and just as disturbing.  “It is not just black inmates who suffer harassment at the hands of white guards.”

The article details racist incidents and assaults against black prison guards, such as one incident, where “white officers wrote ‘Token’ on [a black guard’s] locker, and someone attached a picture of a disheveled black man to his timecard and wrote, ‘This is your black ass nigger brother.’”

The same guard said that “another guard once came up behind him and wrapped a chain around his neck as if it were a lynching.”


Although attempts were made by the State to integrate the upstate prison workforce, “the new black guards [at Attica] were mercilessly harassed …  black officers were roughed up and humiliated in front of the other guards.”

The Ubiquitous Noose

It appears again in the example above: the ubiquitous “noose” in the workplace that we’ve written so much about.

I said on September 28, 2012 “It is extraordinary that the ‘N-word’ and the noose keep reappearing in lawsuits claiming a racially harassing workplace.”  One of the last times I posted about nooses in the workplace the title was “Will The N-Word And Nooses Ever Stop? Maybe When The Civil War finally Ends.

I was hardly joking, I said.  I wrote previously that:

“You may have observed that when it comes to the state of race relations, the Civil War seems to have  never ended, despite Grant and Lee’s friendly sit-down at Appomattox in 1865.  Before we can start the necessary dialogue to finally end the 150-year old Civil War and its toxic precursors, we have to get past the coming election, the rhetoric of which threatens to spiral out of control, along with the magnitude of the hate which has been revealed.”

If the workplace is a microcosm of society, prison is a microcosm of the ills of society and the legacy of 400 years of racism.


Takeaway:  Simply put, where there is no racial integration in a society, system or organization, and neither side understands or trusts the other – because they are “other,” and where there is such an overwhelming power differential between the sides, there is bound to be abuse of that power.  The “system,” going back to the beginning of this country, seems to insure that outcome, intentionally or otherwise.

And the Civil War does not appear to be ending anytime soon.

Altogether this article is a profoundly depressing look within the state prison system.   And since, as the Times says, “Federal intervention has been one of the few effective means of addressing the racial inequities and civil-rights violations in New York State prisons,” one may understandably be very apprehensive about any remedial federal intervention happening in the foreseeable future.


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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]