Racial bias in the New York state prison system is a fact of life. The racism can be felt from the moment black inmates enter New York’s upstate prisons, reports the New York Times. They describe being called porch monkeys, spear chuckers, and worse. There are cases of guards ripping out dreadlocks. One inmate said he was jumped by a guard who threatened to “serve up some black mashed potatoes with tomato sauce.” A former inmate said, “As soon as you come through receiving, they let you know whose house it is.” Most forbidding are three maximum-security penitentiaries in rural areas where the population is almost entirely white and nearly every officer is too. Guards rarely get to know a black person who is not behind bars. A review of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports, and three years of parole decisions found racial disparities embedded in the prison experience.
In most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites. They were sent to solitary confinement more often and for longer durations. A greater share of black inmates are in prison for violent offenses, and minority inmates are younger, factors that could explain why an inmate would be more likely to break prison rules, state officials said. The disparities were greatest for infractions that gave discretion to officers, like disobeying a direct order. In these cases, the officer has much latitude to determine whether a rule is broken, and does not need physical evidence. Blacks make up 14 percent of the state population but almost half of its prisoners. Bias in prison discipline prevents access to jobs and to rehab programs, diminishing an inmate’s chances of being paroled. Each denial is likely to mean two more years behind bars. There are 50,000 inmates in 54 state prisons.