In early June, I received an e-mail from Jennifer Scaife, the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), an organization authorized by New York State law to conduct independent prison oversight. The e-mail was about Chanel Lewis, whom I wrote about in a 2022 article for The Nation, “When The NYPD Gets Desperate.” In 2019, Lewis was convicted of the 2016 murder of Karina Vetrano. In my piece, I confirmed that during the Vetrano homicide investigation the NYPD illegally used a private and secretive DNA lab to conduct unproven forensics and then failed to disclose it during Lewis’s first trial, which ended in a mistrial, or his second, which ended in a life sentence. “We have recently received some disturbing reports about his circumstances,” Scaife wrote.
Lewis was then incarcerated at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison a few hundred miles north of New York City. In an ensuing conversation, Scaife explained that on June 1, CANY received a call from another incarcerated person at Great Meadow alleging that Lewis had effectively been held in solitary confinement for three months and that for at least six days the toilet in his cell wasn’t functioning. “Most of our calls are an incarcerated person calling on behalf of themselves,” Scaife said. “It strikes me that if this is being reported by somebody else, this good samaritan, that the circumstances must be pretty bad.”
The information in the June 1 call was in line with a letter that Lewis himself sent to CANY last fall alleging that he was being mistreated at Great Meadow and asking for advocacy and media attention in order to change his living conditions. It’s also in line with what is generally known about Great Meadow. In 2021, Victoria Law wrote a piece for The Nation, “The Worst Prison In New York,” about this prison. At the time, Law reported, Great Meadow had “the highest rate of suicides of any New York prison, the highest rate of suicide attempts, the highest rate of self-harm, and one of the highest rates of recorded staff violence.”
Lewis was being held in Great Meadow’s Behavioral Health Unit (BHU), which has its own negative reputation beyond that of the prison. Per a Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) manual, the BHU is “a program that provides services to a target population of inmate-patients currently diagnosed as Seriously Mentally Ill, who have demonstrated a history of treatment resistance and poor custodial adjustment/behavior.” According to Scaife, “It tends to be a place where incarcerated people who have been unsuccessful in many other mental health disciplinary units” end up. Scaife says she’s heard DOCCS staff describe people in the BHU as “management problems.”
In 2021, New York passed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. Advocates say that the law has had genuine impact, but that the DOCCS has frequently and flagrantly violated it. This April, the NYCLU filed a lawsuit alleging that the department is not in compliance with HALT.
According to HALT, every incarcerated person must have access to seven hours a day of out-of-cell group programming and recreation seven days a week. But advocates say that Residential Mental Health Units (RHMUs) like the BHU have been ignoring the mandate in favor of the previous legal status quo that allowed incarcerated individuals in RHMUs to be kept in their cells up to 20 or 22 hours a day.
"swipe left below to view more authors"Swipe →
Why You Can’t Buy Lydia Davis’s New Book on Amazon
Why You Can’t Buy Lydia Davis’s New Book on Amazon
On June 13, Marco Barrios, a criminal justice advocate at the Urban Justice Center, interviewed Lewis at the BHU as part of his regular oversight work. They spoke for about an hour in a private booth usually held for attorney meetings. Lewis told Barrios that he has been physically abused by Great Meadow officers and other incarcerated individuals. Out of fear of potential violence, Lewis had become wary of leaving his cell. On one occasion, Lewis alleged, an officer promised he would ensure Lewis’s physical safety if he left his cell. When Lewis did so, he was eventually attacked by another incarcerated person.
Barrios explained this as part of a pattern that he’s observed in which officers discourage people from leaving their cells. He gave as an example of nonviolent coercion officers’ taking prison-issued tablets away from incarcerated people and returning them only if they stay in their cells. “They don’t really want the individuals to come out of their cells.” As for any way to ensure officers are complying with HALT and ensuring out-of-cell time, Barrios said, “there’s no accountability.”
Lewis told Barrios that the water in his cell had been off for over a month and that he hadn’t bathed in that time. Lewis also told Barrios that earlier this year he’d been denied food for two or three days and that he doesn’t eat much because he believes officers “play with his food.” During their sit-down, Lewis repeatedly asked Barrios for snacks from the vending machines. “He asked for some sandwiches, some cakes, soda,” Barrios said. “He kept saying, ‘Could I get something else?’” Lewis also told Barrios that officers at Great Meadow had denied him phone calls and had flooded his cell. “His hygiene was very poor,” Barrios said. “He seemed scared.”
After receiving the June 1 call about Lewis, CANY contacted the DOCCS to ask them to “have these allegations investigated” and to “ensure that medical does a wellness check” on Lewis. When I contacted the department about Lewis, it told me it has “received requests regarding Chanel Lewis’s difficulty adjusting” to the BHU. “These requests have been taken seriously and the Department is in the process of taking actionable steps to place Chanel Lewis in a suitable setting with additional resources where staff can continue to meet their needs.”
On July 5, Barrios again spoke with Lewis, this time on the phone, and learned that he had been moved to the RHMU at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, north of Ithaca. When reached for comment on Lewis’s transfer, the DOCCS told me, “The Department cannot comment on a specific individual’s placement. We can note that an incarcerated individual is transferred for any number of reasons including discipline, security, program, health, or mental health needs.”
According to Scaife, the Five Points RHMU is “somewhat less restrictive than the BHU, but it remains a disciplinary unit for people with serious mental illness.” On the phone, Lewis told Barrios that his conditions since being moved to Five Points had not significantly improved.
Barrios and the Urban Justice Center are advocating for a new act, the Treatment Not Jails Act, which would in theory divert people out of the prison system and into mental health facilities. Currently, Barrios explains, DA offices are “the gatekeepers of who should get treatment. We wanna leave it to clinicians to decide.”
But as has been the case since he was first convicted, Lewis’s best hope for a timely change in his living conditions is a return to the courts. Lewis’s lawyers, Rhiya Trivedi and Ron Kuby, are currently working on Lewis’s appeal. Trivedi told me, “The New York State prison system is not an adequate custodian of Chanel’s well-being. We are doing everything we can to get him a new trial. And he deserves a new trial. He’s been the victim of a massive coverup.”