is serving 36 years to life for killing a man during a drunken
bar fight 19 years ago. A lot has happened in his life since
then. When he entered prison at 18, Dagnone couldn’t read
or write. He’s since earned a GED, two years of college credit
and paralegal training, and has gotten married. Dagnone is
now being held in Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock,
but his stint behind bars has taken him through almost every
maximum-security prison in the Empire State: Attica, Sing-Sing,
Downstate, Shawangunk, Southport, Clinton, Coxsackie, Sullivan,
Dagnone tried to escape. He used a rope and hook to scale
the roof, and stolen wire cutters to get through a fence before
a guard dog nabbed him. The foiled breakout earned him five
years in disciplinary confinement at Upstate Correctional
Facility in Malone.
nearly two decades in prison, Dagnone is still haunted by
an incident he witnessed at Upstate a little over a year ago.
For two days and nights in December 2004, he listened helplessly
as a 19-year-old inmate named Christopher Campos suffered
repeated seizures in a nearby cell. Campos later died in the
infirmary because the prison’s medical staff had assumed he
was faking it.
Adirondacks are the heart of New York state’s prison country.
Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, collectively known as
the North Country, are home to 10 prisons that employ more
than 3,900 people. The annual payroll exceeds $177 million.
town of Malone, northwest of Plattsburgh, is the site of three
prisons. Together, Bare Hill, Franklin and Upstate correctional
facilities account for more than one-third of the town’s 14,800
residents. Upstate Correctional Facility is New York’s newest
and largest super-max prison. It’s a sprawling complex of
23 buildings on 70 acres about 10 minutes by car from the
is unique among the 70 prisons operated by the New York State
Department of Correctional Services (DOCS). Hailed at its
opening in July 1999 as a “new concept in disciplinary housing,”
it was designed to hold the worst of the worst. It has a capacity
of 1,500 inmates—300 to work in the prison’s mess hall, laundry
and other services, and 1,200 in disciplinary confinement,
known as the “Special Housing Unit.”
get “SHU time” for a variety of offenses—possession of contraband,
failed drug tests or “dirty urines,” fighting with other inmates
or assaulting staff. SHU prisoners are locked down 23 hours
a day, with just one hour of legally mandated “recreation”
time in an empty outdoor cage attached to each cell. There
are no phones, no clocks, no programs, no religious congregations
and no physical interaction with other inmates. Except for
a limited amount of reading material, headphones that play
staff-selected radio stations, and one allowed visit per week,
inmates in SHU have virtually no contact with the outside
cell can house one or two inmates. The cell has no bars, just
a concrete floor and three walls, a thick metal door and a
vent that allows in filtered light. Nearly all an inmate’s
activities take place inside his cell, minimizing his contact
with staff and other prisoners. Each cell has a stainless-steel
sink and toilet; staff operate a shower externally. All meals
are served through a “feed-up” slot in the door. On the rare
occasions when an inmate leaves his cell—for court hearings,
meetings with visitors or emergency infirmary calls—he is
typically shackled in leg irons and handcuffed at the waist.
leads the nation in both the number and percentage of inmates
who live in disciplinary confinement, according to the prison
watchdog group Correctional Association of New York. DOCS
credits this approach for its steep decline in inmate offenses.
Between 1993 and 2002, DOCS reported a 38-percent drop in
inmate-on-staff assaults. Inmate-on-inmate violence declined
44 percent, contraband offenses 39 percent. The correctional
department’s newsletter, DOCS Today, summed it up in
April 2003: “Upstate is doing exactly what officials had hoped
it would do.”
of Upstate and similar SHU facilities point to disturbing
problems associated with life “in the box”—notably, the inmates’
extraordinary amount of idleness, isolation and neglect. With
virtually nothing to do for weeks, months and sometimes years
at a stretch, inmates are essentially warehoused and rarely
receive any treatment or counseling. Many “max out” their
sentences at Upstate and are released directly back into society
with no transitional period following their time in solitary
essentially a human kennel,” says Stacy Graczyk, an attorney
with Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York in Plattsburgh.
“It does things to people being in there. In the military,
people get special psychological training in case they become
a prisoner of war, to help them tolerate this kind of isolation.
And these are people who already have trouble fitting into
who provides legal aid to inmates in 16 prisons in northern
New York, first learned of the Campos case in a letter from
Dagnone. The letter, which she found deeply disturbing, echoed
many of the complaints she commonly hears about inmate medical
care. At Upstate, she says, prisoners can find it “extremely
difficult” to get anyone to take their ailments seriously.
that in the medical and mental health records all the time,
that they’re malingering, they’re faking it, they’re always
complaining,” Graczyk says. “I think it blinds [the medical
staff] to the serious issues that might be there.”
according to Graczyk, it’s standard procedure at Upstate for
medical exams to be conducted through the door, with nurses
handing out medications, making patient assessments, even
drawing blood and giving shots through the feed-up slot. Not
only does this compromise an inmate’s privacy, she says, but
it also raises serious questions about how medical personnel
can evaluate a patient they can’t see or touch. Graczyk believes
it was this “hands-off” approach to medical care that cost
Campos his life.
Campos was born in Mexico and came to the United States when
he was 13, according to his 18-year-old half-brother, Hilario
Campos Jr. Campos spoke very little English, his brother says,
so he often skipped school and fell in with gang members who
lived near their home in Queens.
York State Commission of Correction, the independent state
agency that investigates all inmate deaths, released a report
on Campos’ death in late September. It notes that Campos’
criminal record began at age 16, when he and several others
tried to rob a man. When the victim attempted to flee, he
was stabbed several times and hit with a baseball bat. Campos
was convicted of second-degree assault, menacing behavior
and possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to one to three
years in prison.
entered the correctional system with a known medical history.
During his intake in February 2003, he reported that he suffered
from a seizure disorder that had begun when he was 6, as well
as asthma and tachycardia, for which he was taking medication.
His last reported seizure occurred three days before he entered
was sent to Lakeview, a minimum-security prison in Brockton,
then to Washington Correctional Facility in Comstock. There,
according to the Commission report, he “experienced frequent
seizures regularly witnessed by officers.” Although Campos
occasionally refused to take his meds, the report states,
he began undergoing treatment and observation in the neurology
department at Albany Medical Center, where he was a frequent
patient for the next year and a half.
26, 2004, Campos attacked another inmate with a weapon and
was sentenced to 10 months in SHU at Upstate. He was assigned
to 8 Building, B Block, Cell 26—two cells away from Dagnone.
Campos was alone in his cell.
gonna lie to you,” says Dagnone, who has seen his share of
correctional facilities. “[Upstate’s] the worst prison I ever
been in.” A clean-cut man with a boyish face, a friendly demeanor
and no-bullshit Brooklyn charm, Dagnone relates his account
of what happened to Campos during a conversation in the visitors’
hall at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock.
remembers when Campos arrived, he says. He and Campos talked
occasionally—though Campos was two cells away and didn’t speak
English well. A Latino inmate named Julio Perez in the cell
between them spoke Spanish. Perez sometimes translated for
Campos when the nurses came around on sick calls, Dagnone
says. Perez wasn’t allowed out of the cell to translate—he
had to shout through the door.
21, 2004, Campos was taken to Albany Medical Center, where
it was determined that his seizures were still not controlled
and he needed “long-term” monitoring, according to the Commission
report. On Nov. 20, he was admitted to Albany Medical Center’s
Epilepsy Monitoring Unit and kept under constant observation
until his discharge on Dec. 6. Campos had no seizures during
this time, the report states. However, the attending neurologist
noted in his medical history, “The patient wakes up multiple
times in the night with injury, sometimes tongue biting, sometimes
abrasions all over his head.” Campos’ discharge diagnosis
as the Commission report explains, are a real and dangerous
condition. Also known as Psychogenic Nonepileptic Seizures,
pseudoseizures are not phony seizures. Rather, they are believed
to be “a psychological defense mechanism induced by stress
or episodes of severe emotional trauma.” Pseudoseizures often
accompany other types of seizures, and are commonly treated
with anticonvulsive drugs.
was returned to Upstate on Dec. 6 without his prescribed medication
of Carbatrol, an anti-seizure drug, and was admitted to the
prison infirmary for 24 hours of observation. The physician
assistant (identified in the Commission report only as “L.T.”)
noted on his chart that Campos had “missed one dose already
so he may not get today. Will just discontinue.” When she
was later interviewed by state investigators, the physician
assistant “said that she ‘assumed’ that pseudoseizures were
‘fake seizures.’ ”
8 and 9, according to the report, Campos refused his meal
trays at breakfast, lunch and dinner and was visited by a
nurse and a social worker. At one point on Dec. 9, a corrections
officer reported that Campos was lying “half under his bed”
and “refused to respond when [the officer] arrived at the
cell.” The report states that the inmate “keeps asking for
meds,” but wasn’t given any. His medical examination was conducted
through the cell window.
who has never seen the Commission report and wasn’t interviewed
by state investigators, remembers how for two days before
Campos died, he complained about his stomach, called for his
meds and asked that his family be called. Inmates often play
games with guards and medical staff to get attention, Dagnone
admits. But he knew something must be seriously wrong for
Campos to refuse all three meals for two days in a row.
9, Dagnone says, a guard called the nurse because Campos appeared
to be in serious trouble. “I gotta give credit where credit
is due,” Dagnone says. “[The guards] tried to get him help.”
remembers that the medical staff showed up at Campos’ cell
but didn’t enter. “They kept yelling at him, ‘Get off the
floor, Campos! Get off the floor! We know you’re faking it!’
was left alone. Dagnone claims he didn’t sleep much that night
because of what was going on two cells away. “We could all
hear him banging around and flapping on the concrete . . .
If you’re looking for attention, why do it when no one’s watching?”
report confirms Dagnone’s account. The staff physician on
duty, identified in the report only as “Dr. E.W.,” claimed
that Campos was “difficult to evaluate.” However, the report
also states, “Other medical and correctional staff in the
area did not corroborate Dr. E.W.’s interpretation of the
event. They stated that the physician concluded that Campos
was ‘faking and acting like a child holding his breath.’ ”
morning of Dec. 10, 2004, Campos was found lying unconscious
on the floor of his cell. He was brought by stretcher to the
prison infirmary, where he was pronounced dead later that
nurses would have did their job, this never would’ve happened,”
says Dagnone. “He was a young kid with his whole life ahead
of him. And the fucking guy choked to death. That’s a horrible
way to die! You wonder, God forbid I get sick, these are the
people I gotta go to?”
conclusions about the incident are sharply critical of the
medical care Campos received. The report states that the staff
physician on duty “failed to provide appropriate intervention,
diagnosis and treatment of a gravely ill inmate.” The physician
assistant “arbitrarily discontinued Campos’ medication,” and
the nurse assigned to the infirmary “failed to provide proper
nursing intervention.” Investigators also criticized the practice
of conducting patient evaluations through the window of a
cell or infirmary room. All three medical staff were recommended
for “administrative action.”
office at Upstate does not release the names of staff and
refers all media inquiries to the DOCS press office in Albany.
DOCS spokesperson Mike Fraser says he cannot comment on the
specifics of the Campos case but only on department policies
and practices as a whole.
incident being raised is certainly a tragedy,” Fraser says.
“But it’s important to know that it’s not representative of
the care that our inmates receive, and it certainly doesn’t
represent the efforts around the state to provide the best
possible care we can to more than 63,000 inmates statewide.”
points out that New York state has made tremendous strides
in addressing some of the most serious medical issues in the
inmate population, including a 95 percent drop in AIDS deaths
since 1995, and a 78 percent decline in tuberculosis. “We
actually have a lower TB rate than New York City,” he notes.
adds that the Campos incident, while tragic and unfortunate,
gives the correctional system an opportunity to “take a long,
hard look” at its policies and improve care. Recommendations
made by the Commission on Correction are not legally binding.
However, Fraser insists that DOCS takes them “very seriously.”
couldn’t say how many members of the Upstate medical staff
speak Spanish. Although an estimated 8 percent of New York
inmates are Spanish-dominant speakers, there’s no requirement
in New York that prisons have Spanish-speaking doctors or
nurses on staff.
asked what “administrative action” was taken against the individuals
involved in this case, Fraser explains, “Our response is to
counsel our physicians and staff who were involved and also
to educate them.” None was terminated.
Gangi is executive director of the Correctional Association
of New York. The prison-watchdog group has unique authority
under state law to inspect prisons and interview inmates.
Over the years, it has issued a number of scathing assessments
of inmate health care.
2000, the Correctional Association identified a host of systemic
problems plaguing New York prisons, including the high number
of underqualified medical staff, the lack of quality assurance,
and no external government oversight—which means that prison
health-care workers are accountable only to prison authorities.
report also noted the serious shortage of Spanish-speaking
medical personnel. “Spanish-speaking inmates were given medical
information they did not understand, drug prescriptions they
could not read and substandard health care due to the lack
of Spanish-speaking medical staff,” the report states.
an inspection of Upstate in January 2001, one inmate told
interviewers that he’d entered the prison with serious medical
ailments and had filed 47 requests to see a doctor but hadn’t
received any treatment. On another visit in August 2002, CA
inspectors found a disabled prisoner who had been transferred
from the wheelchair unit in another prison. At Upstate, his
wheelchair was confiscated for “security reasons.”
in extreme distress and said that he could barely hoist himself
onto the toilet,” the report reads. “Because of his disability,
he had trouble moving his hands and could not write a grievance
to medical staff. He had spent several weeks at Upstate living
on the floor.”
interviewed by phone last week, Gangi said he’d just returned
from a visit to Upstate a day earlier and had heard “a lot
of complaints about medical care.” Gangi wasn’t familiar with
the Campos case, but he said many of the events described
to him from the Commission report are symptomatic of problems
his group has been complaining about for years.
at Prisoners’ Legal Services hears comparable stories from
Upstate. She refutes the DOCS assertion that the Campos case
was an isolated incident. Recently, her office worked with
an inmate there who’d arrived at Upstate with a heart condition.
He had been prescribed self-carry nitroglycerin pills, which
were taken away from him upon arrival. According to Graczyk,
the inmate was told that if he experienced chest pains, he
should “bang on his cell door.” Only after Prisoners’ Legal
Services got involved were the pills returned to him.
hear it all the time. ‘Lock the door and throw away the key.
Who gives a fuck what happens to them?’ ” Graczyk says. “People
think that everyone in prison is a Ted Bundy. But what about
this kid? He’s in there for one to three for assault second.
Did he deserve a death sentence for that? Obviously not.”
Graczyk requested a copy of the videotape of Campos’ cell
from Dec. 9 and 10, 2004, under New York’s Freedom of Information
Law, she was told it wasn’t available. The tape hadn’t been
Campos Jr. says he learned of his brother’s death when he
arrived home from school on Friday, Dec. 10, 2004. He says
someone from the prison had called and left a message with
his parents—in English. Since they couldn’t understand it
well, Hilario had to call the prison back.
reached last week at their home in Camden, N.J., Hilario said
he and his parents didn’t know the Commission of Correction
had issued a report on Christopher’s death. No one had informed
them that the state was conducting an investigation.
matter of fact,” Hilario says, “they haven’t even sent us
the autopsy results. They only give us the death certificate.”
would have turned 21 on Jan. 17, and would have been released
from prison a week later.
Picard is a staff writer at Seven Days in Burlington,
Vt., where this story first appeared.