On the morning of Sept. 5, 2017, Herman Bell, an elder incarcerated at Great Meadow Correctional Facility near the upstate community of Comstock, N.Y., was brutally assaulted by a vicious gang of prison guards.
Bell has been incarcerated for the past 44 years. He is a former member of the Black Panther Party, and is one many would say “knows how to do time.” In the aftermath of the vicious beating, Bell was charged with a Tier III ticket for allegedly assaulting one of the prison guards involved. Despite his serious injuries, he was quickly transferred to the punitive Five Points Correctional Facility and placed in the Solitary Housing Unit, where he is locked down 23 hours a day. If convicted of the ludicrous charge, he faces indefinite time in the SHU and the loss of privileges and “good time.” It is also possible that he could also lose the potential for parole in the years to come.
Bell said that it all began with a routine morning telephone call between him and Nancy, his wife of 27 years, but it ended horribly with him suffering multiple injuries that included several cracked ribs, bruises all over his body and a swollen and blackened right eye. His eye-glasses were shattered, and he lay in an isolation unit of the infirmary for hours without treatment, followed by a speedy transfer to another facility and placement in its SHU.
While Bell was on the phone, a fight broke out in the yard (where the telephones are located), and a prison guard ordered Bell to hang up. He says that he did so, but the guard ordered him to put his hands behind his back and escorted him back into the prison—not through the usual way, where the other men were being led back in, but through the Mess Hall and into an isolated area without cameras.
Reportedly, the guard struck the first blow, and then pushed Bell hard against the wall. Bell said he fell to the ground stunned as the guard continued pummeling him. More guards rushed to the scene and joined the assault, punching and kicking Bell everywhere on his body, spraying him at close range with Mace, seriously affecting his ability to breathe and causing injury to his left eye. The attackers tried to pull off his shoes, likely trying to break his legs, but could not get his state-issued boots off. Instead, one of the guards grabbed his head and slammed it into the concrete floor multiple times. Throughout the ordeal, Bell thought he was going to die.
Bell’s family and supporters say that the claim that he assaulted a prison guard is utterly unbelievable. Friends who visit him often overhear prison guards repeatedly refer to him as a “cop killer,” yet Bell maintains a professional and respectful attitude. He is known to all to be a kind, gentle, patient, thoughtful and purposeful man in both his words and deeds, someone who offers steady counsel, wisdom and mentoring
to all those he encounters.
Bell has mentored thousands of younger prisoners throughout the state on the do’s and don’ts of surviving prison. Formerly incarcerated men who are now contributing to our communities report that he was key in helping them rebuild their lives, educate themselves and succeed on the outside. Bell has consistently corresponded with high school and college students across the country about history, the world they live in and how to make it better. Both inside and outside the prison walls, Bell is widely admired, loved and respected. Decades in prison have not lessened his concern for hungry children, which inspired his creation of the Victory Gardens project to provide locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables to poor and working-class families across the city’s five boroughs.
Bell has not had a serious disciplinary infraction in more than 30 years and no infraction at all in the past 20 years. He is up for parole in six months, and on the day after the assault by guards, he was to begin a family visit with his wife—his first weekend family visit in more than years. These facts, say his supporters, and his well-known character render the allegation that he would risk everything by assaulting a prison guard patently absurd.
On Sept. 9, four days after the assault, Bell was visited by his wife at the Five Points Correctional Facility. Nancy Bell described her husband as “chained and shackled behind glass and a screen, had a big black eye that was very runny and watery.”
She added, “He was in excruciating pain, with the only medicine provided being Tylenol, was experiencing great difficulty finding a comfortable position to sit or lay and was concerned that he may not regain vision in his eye due to the extreme amount of Mace he sustained.”
Unfortunately, an incident such as this one is far from an anomaly in the New York prison system, but rather the practice and pattern of oppression and repression of Black men in its custody. A series of articles in The New York Times last year traced a pattern of racist abuse by New York prison guards that has included cases similar to this one. The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision must address this problem, but clearly has not.
That said, the beating Bell endured must also be viewed in a historical context. From the crushing of the prisoner’s human rights movements of the 1960s to today, to hunger strikes, work stoppages, to Ku Klux Klan prison guards in facilities across the state, to the well-documented abuse of incarcerated people on Rikers Island, violence by prison guards, like police violence, is a sad fact of everyday life for poor and working-class Black/Brown people. Prison guards and police are given the “lawful” authority to inflict unfettered and institutionalized terror, violence and often murder on whomever they choose with impunity, especially when the victims are poor and working-class, Black/Brown or in prison.
As in Bell’s case, the abused is often charged with the violence. How many times are we told, “He had a gun,” only to learn that there was no gun at all? Who will take the word of a stereotyped Black/Brown man, woman or child over that of a police officer? Who will take the word of someone who has been convicted of a crime or is held in a detention center? Who is likely to listen to anyone whose version of an incident contradicts the “official” report made by a prison guard or a police officer? The predicament in which Bell finds himself is analogous to the predicaments of Abner Louima, Kalief Browder, Eleanor Bumpurs, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, the Central Park 5 and many others have found themselves in. It is the modus operandi in which far too many prison guards and police officers lack the moral compass, public scrutiny and certainly concern over accountability or consequences for the violence they commit against Black/Brown people inside or outside the prison walls.
It is said that if you want to know how civilized a society is, just take a look into its prison. Bell is an elder who had to endure a mob beating by prison guards. Whether a targeted attack because they knew who he was—a widely loved and respected former Black Panther political prisoner—or unchecked rage at a Black man, their actions were unconscionable and unacceptable.
As we mark the 45th anniversary of the Attica rebellion and massacre, this act of state-sanctioned violence sends a chilling reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The U.S. prison system has always been used as a tool of oppression to repress, control, demonize and dehumanize poor and working-class Black/Brown people, but this attack on Bell exemplifies the need for meaningful and structural change right now to hold prison guards and administrations accountable for the violence inflicted on people in their custody. That six grown men wearing steel-toe boots, could beat, punch and kick another human being—an elder especially—as he lay prostrate on the floor, demands swift and decisive action to hold those who participated accountable.
Bell’s supporters are asking people to make the call for justice in the name of Herman Bell, who Jan 14, 2018, will turn 70 years old. “Let us call on the attorney general to indict the prison guards involved in the vicious mob assault on Herman Bell,” his friends and family are demanding. “Let us call on the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to fire the prison guards and drop the ludicrous charges against Herman.”
The paper did not get a response from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision by press time.