Another Suspicious Death Raises More Concerns About Black Life Behind Bars

Story Transcript

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

On July 29 of this year, in the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland, Darrell Murray was found unresponsive in his cell. His sister, Shawna, a longtime activist and organizer with Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle here in Baltimore, is leading a charge to raise concerns and awareness around the death, the suspicious death, and what is being called a murder, in fact, of her brother Darrell. To help us discuss this, shed some light on this issue, is Shawna’s comrade with the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, the director of research for that organization, Lawrence Grandpre. Lawrence, thank you for joining us here at the Real News.

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: Thank you for having me.

BALL: So just tell us what’s going on. What happened with Darrell, and what is the latest, and what is it that Shawna’s asking folks to do?

GRANDPRE: So LBS has been involved in working on police brutality work here in Baltimore for the past couple of years. We were surprised when we got an email from one of our former board members that basically told us that her brother was a victim of police brutality. And this was unfortunately a case where you have a young man from Baltimore City convicted of a minor drug offense. And as is common practice here he is shipped around from prison to prison to prison inside the state.

He was known for calling out correctional officers, or COs, when they violated people’s rights. And as such he eventually ended up in the notorious Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland. Cumberland is in Western Maryland. And though Maryland has a progressive reputation in other parts of the country and the world, Western Maryland is far more similar to West Virginia than the I-95 DC corridor that people think. So while he was out there–and actually, the last visit between him and his family he said, if you all don’t get me out of here I’m afraid that I’m going to end up dead.

So we have a notorious prison for abuse, for correctional officers who are heavy-handed, many of whom are suspected of having ties to racist organizations and multiple reports of those folks being actively anti-black in their racism, and sure enough just a few months ago he was found hanged in his cell. His family has been unable to get a satisfactory account of what happened. They accused a cellmate, but there’s been no charges. And there’s no mechanism of accountability.

And unfortunately, even with the Black Lives Matter movement that’s popping up, when someone’s in jail it’s harder for that story to get attention because there is an unspoken politics of innocence that people like to attach to victims of police brutality. The whole hands up, don’t shoot idea. So one thing that we want to be very focused on is to talk about the politics of folks when they’re in jail, and the ubiquity of violence in those facilities and how that needs to be part of the conversation, even if it’s inconvenient for some who really like that politics of innocence when they get into these conversations.

BALL: Aside from the context you’ve laid out, the claim, though, from Shawna and her family is that Darrell was murdered. What evidence actually is there to support this? Or is this all just being put together by the circumstantial evidence of, of her brother’s work, his claims, and then the notorious, as you said, reputation of that prison?

GRANDPRE: Well, unfortunately, I myself have not been privy to all the details, because the family is pursuing a civil suit. And they have been told to not divulge specific details of the case in light of that impending civil suit. What we do know is that he was found hanged by a sheet in his cell. He was not in general population. He was in lockdown with his cellmate. And the question they’re wondering is, as the correctional facility is claiming, if it is the cellmate who did this why has there been no charges, why isn’t it simply an open and shut case? And given the long history Darrell had of run-ins with the COs–and again, specific reports that are going to come out in the civil case, that I can’t divulge here publicly in the media, that show a pattern of disagreements between Darrell and the COs, which lead them to believe that much more is happening here than has been divulged.

BALL: Maybe this is something you can’t get into or is maybe not known, but it strikes me as odd that someone could kill another person by hanging them. Are there, is there any other evidence that the authorities are suggesting to support their claim that it was his cellmate that did this? I mean, how would one even go about doing that?

GRANDPRE: This gets me into I think an important point. We don’t know, and that’s part of the problem. Maryland has what’s called a Correctional Officers’ Bill of Rights, which when correctional officers are accused of any wrongdoing, they themselves, and their people who are attached to them, have the sole right to pursue that investigation. So you can’t have an outside investigation come in. You literally have COs and police policing COs and police.

So in terms of the specifics of the investigation, we aren’t privy to those details, and that’s precisely the problem when people talk about how do we address police brutality? How do we address these issues? There are state laws that structurally prevent the types of in-depth investigation that we need. I think your point about the nature of the deaths is pretty on point in terms of it being very suspicious, in terms of this–in terms of all of the evidence we have, it doesn’t seem to be a case of suicide. And it doesn’t seem to be a strong case that people have explained to anyone publicly why the cellmate would be solely responsible for this type of murder. That would seem to require more than one person, for a strong young man to be taken out like that.

So the question is, where is the structural accountability in terms of the way this process happens, and can this larger movement around police accountability understand the nuances of specific state laws that need to be changed in order for us to have a fair practice, which importantly is the only way to have a fair deterrent for these practices. If they know they’re going to get caught and they know they’re going to get punished, that’s the only way they won’t do it. So we need to get the legal power to make that a reality.

BALL: So what are Shawna, the family, and LBS asking our viewers and others to do?

GRANDPRE: Well, there is a GoFundMe, in terms of covering funeral costs. I know there’s been sickness in the family, there’s been people missing work in the family. So if any of the viewers are moved, you’d be directly supporting the family if you donate to the GoFundMe. We’re actually having a rally tomorrow on Wednesday, in terms of educating the local public here about the situation. And the larger issues at play are things like the Correctional Officers’ Bill of Rights. The family specifically says that you need to have independent investigations of correctional officers in terms of when they’re [opposed] of wrongdoing.

And the last thing I’ll say is that while we have some reporting now of incidents of police brutality, there’s no reporting of violence that happens inside the jail. So you need to have changes to the law, which means we have to actually report deaths in jail, people killed by correctional officers in jail, and not just folks who are shot on the streets by police, for us to even know about these incidents when they occur.

BALL: Lawrence, thank you for joining us here at the Real News.

GRANDPRE: Thank you so much.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. And for all involved, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

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