Davon Washington, Steven Espinal, Pariis Tillery, and “John Doe”, all between the age of 19 and 25, sat confused, riding in a dark van without windows.  The young men did not know why they were leaving Rikers Island Jail.  Inmates, even those awaiting trial, are not given an explanation, and the correctional officers in charge had total control over such information.  Little did the young men know that within three hours they would be welcomed as property of the Albany County Jail.  About a dozen of Albany’s finest, also known as the Green Team, stood prepped and ready in their olive drab fatigues. 

Let the initiation begin.

The Team snatched the bewildered young men from the van and placed them in metal cages.  “Take your shirt with your right hand and pass it backward over your left shoulder,” the officers commanded.  Perplexed, the young men reacted too slowly and quickly received blows to the head.  The officers continued with their commands: each time the young men made a mistake, the Green Team promptly responded by punching and kicking them more.  As they cried out in pain, the officers accused them of hiding contraband inside their bodies, a charge which the young men vehemently denied. The officers continued beating and using tasers on them, reducing some into a state of shock.  Naked and broken, they lay on the ice-cold floor, “crying, pleading, covered in their own urine and feces,” according to court documents.

But there was no end in sight.  The torture continued for several months, the young men fearing that “they could be killed at any moment and no one would know what happened to them.”  However,  disillusionment and hopelessness was the goal of the beatings, not death. As the experiences I have just related reveal, the carceral state kills in an array of interconnected ways.  People experience a variety of forms of social death as well: through stigma, loss of civil rights, and degradation of the mind and body.  These deaths occur consecutively through a process of initiation into captivity that never really ends, ritualized violence designed to transform people from human beings into obedient inmates. 

Yet these particular young men refused to be silent about their pain, or to accept the premise that, as inmates, they somehow deserved such treatment.  On December 28, 2018 they filed a lawsuit in Manhattan District Court against New York City, the Department of Corrections, Albany County, and various employees across all three entities.  The suit alleges that in addition to assaults, inmates transferred from Rikers to Albany County are routinely held in solitary confinement “in their cells…for a minimum of 23 hours a day, with no meaningful social interaction, environmental stimulation or human contact.” 

The young men were transferred using a substitute jail order (SJO), which permits inmate transfers for the “public interest” due to concerns such as overcrowding or an inmate’s perceived threat to security.  Such transfers are also a source of profit for local government. In 2013 Albany County earned more than $3 million housing inmates from other counties using SJOs.  Albany County charges New York City $175 per day for each inmate coming from Rikers; however, the suit alleges New York City is more than willing to pay this cost to “circumvent its own ban on solitary confinement for detainees 21 and younger.” 

But in fact, one form of violence is replaced by another during these transfers. The lawsuit details how Albany’s “Green Team officers sometime use Tasers against cuffed Rikers detainees, insert their fingers into detainees’ rectums and even sodomize detainees with foreign objects.  These actions have no legitimate security purpose.  Rather, they are assaults designed to assert the dominance of correctional staff and humiliate, intimidate, and degrade detainees.”  Even Albany County Jail’s resident nurse was accused of refusing to provide medical care and simply instructing victims to “take Motrin” so long as they could walk. 

And yet, it is correctional officers who claim to be the victims of violence. The suit accuses the Green Team of forging disciplinary reports, or write-ups, to cover their tracks: there are no medical records to provide evidence of this. Instead the records show repeat hospital visits where scores of former Rikers inmates sought and were denied treatment for officer-perpetrated sexual assaults and beatings.  Even after they were notified of these allegations, the suit alleges, New York City “failed to investigate or remediate these conditions and has continued sending detainees, including many aged 21 and younger, to the Albany County Jail without notice, to be beaten and put in solitary confinement.”

The young men transferred from Rikers undoubtedly knew this initiation well. Correctional officers at Rikers also love administering a good blow to an inmate’s head, often in tandem with a painful arm hold.  When physically assaulted, if people speak, lift their head, or even put their hands up, officers interpret such physical movements as refusal to submit, and attack them again.   It has been widely reported that Rikers officers thrive on, and gain pleasure from, degrading people, according to the Eighth Report of the Nunez Independent Monitor.  The Nunez Monitoring Team was put in place after testimony in Nunez v. City of New York (2015) revealed that Rikers officers relished in degrading people, many younger than 18, through the use of excessive solitary confinement, beatings, and sexual assault as an initiation, both for the officers, who bonded over predatory violence, and for the civilians who were becoming inmates.

Violence reinforces other initiation rituals. Sociologists have written extensively about punishment and symbolic interaction. Erving Goffman and Gresham Sykes describe legal degradation rituals such as replacing birth names with numbers, confiscating personal items, replacing personal clothing with a standard inmate jumpsuit, restricting privacy, and regulating communication with the outside world.  The goal is to draw a distinction between a free, and an institutional, self, and all inmates are subject to these rules.  But Goffman and Sykes overlook the reality that, because of the demographics of incarceration, ritualized violence is disproportionately directed at nonwhite Americans.  Though racial demographics for Albany County Jail are difficult to come by, 2017 data shows that 33.7% of inmates at Rikers are Latino and 53.0% are Black.  

Structural racism refers to the normalization of racial and ethnic inferiority and criminality, which justifies discrimination and racial violence. Officers use the overrepresentation of nonwhite inmates as evidence that racial stereotypes are in fact truth, regardless of the reality that mass criminalization led to the hyper-incarceration of nonwhites as opposed to whites. 

But structural racism within sites of incarceration is also hard for some to recognize, in part because so many prison staffers are themselves people of color. As Michael Walker writes, formal procedures and compliant officers across all racial and ethnic groups jointly participate in the rituals that create jail inmates.

As a result, Walker finds that white supremacist ideology, combined with the legal authority given to officers, produces an environment where black and Latino inmates are subjected to intense officer-initiated violence.  Yet this racist initiation does not begin or end with jail: as Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve notes, rituals of  “racial degradation” are pervasive throughout the criminal justice system. Prosecutors, sheriffs, and judges also bond over dehumanizing rituals that produce a stigmatizing identity that prepares the person for further initiation into prison life if convicted, and persists well beyond the period of incarceration.  Van Cleve found that, prior to conviction, court actors routinely humiliate defendants, arrange their mugshots on a wall like artwork, and refer to black and Latino defendants as “mopes.” Patrick Lopez-Aguado shows that these forms of racial degradation intensify in prison and persist post-release, especially for racial and ethnic minorities, because correctional officers systematically identify them as gang members, and thus, more dangerous than other inmates.  

The transfers from Rikers to Albany County demonstrate that such degradation rituals intensify during times that corrections officers perceive as chaotic, and that require enhanced control: implementation of new correctional polices and changes in the size and social characteristics of the inmate population. Transferred inmates enter a new correctional institution accompanied by paperwork, or word of mouth, reputations that make them targets for violence. Rikers categorized the young men transferred to Albany as especially violent with behavioral problems, making them a target for special attention from Albany officers.  When the four young men who filed suit arrived to Albany County, they allege that Lt. Anthony Torrisi welcomed their arrival with the words: “This isn’t Rikers.  This is Albany County.  We do what we want.”   

What makes the situation for transferred inmates even more dire is the fact that inmates are at greatest risk of violence when correctional officers view them as precarious, lacking in social capital among other inmates, and thus without the means to retaliate. Similarly, officers regularly target gender-nonconforming inmates, young inmates, undocumented immigrants, and new inmates for extreme degradation because such inmates are also vulnerable to assault within the inmate population. Officers prey on vulnerability when deciding how, when, and who to initiate the hardest.  This should be especially troubling when we consider the fact that jails such as Albany County are experiencing a surge in undocumented migrants.  In July 2018, the jail held an unprecedented 320 undocumented migrants and was struggling to manage the exponential influx of inmates.

In April 2019 Judge Colleen McMahon ruled in favor of the four plaintiffs, despite legislation that had impeded prior lawsuits, such as the 1996 Prisoner Litigation Reform Act. This federal law prohibits inmates from filing lawsuits unless they have “exhausted” the “administrative remedies” of the institution, meaning they must follow the institution’s own grievance process before bringing a case to court.  Activists routinely critique the law for forcing inmates to request that their abusers change their ways, effectively creating scenarios where inmates can face retaliation for attempting to report the correctional institution. Judge McMahon was shocked by the evidence: she not only allowed the suit to proceed, she referred the case for criminal prosecution.  In an 82-page decision, McMahon wrote that the plaintiffs endured “a routine of torture,” and that such “barbarity” could not “be tolerated in a civilized society.”  The case settled in October 2019, forcing New York City, Albany County, and the Department of Corrections to collectively pay the plaintiffs $980,000.  The court also recognized that what the inmates had endured was a widespread practice and not, as is frequently alleged in similar situations, a few bad apples. 

This is a start. Lawsuits bring recognize, and compensate victims’ suffering. But it isn’t change: lawsuits do not address the systemic problem McMahon stressed in her ruling: violent and systematic violence is integral to the functioning of the carceral system, and to the actual creation of inmates. In fact, closing particularly egregious sites of incarceration, like Rikers and Albany, without oversight from community activists, ensures that inmates transferred to other institutions will become exposed to heightened violence. Degradation is institutionalized as an initiation ritual across all sites of criminal justice, existing as a form of solidarity for those employed at all levels of law enforcement.  In the face of criminal justice reform and institutional change, correctional officers are likely to accelerate their efforts to teach inmates that it is the officers who have total control over life and death. As long as mass incarceration continues, it seems likely that violent ritual degradation will persist as a sick initiation into life as an inmate. 

Brittany Friedman is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. She is writing a book about the Black Guerilla Family, forthcoming in the “Justice, Power, and Politics” series with the University of North Carolina Press. You can tweet with her @curlyprofessor.