Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Remarks by Commissioner Brian Fischer
New York Minorities In Criminal Justice Annual Training Symposium
Batavia Holiday Inn, Batavia
September 24, 2010

Note: Commissioner Fischer delivered these remarks to symposium participants in Batavia via “skyping” from the desktop computer in his Albany office, marking the first time the Commissioner has communicated with a group using this technology.

I’m sorry I could not come to Batavia to speak with you in person, but as it turns out, we’re the first to experiment with the idea of videoconferencing at a new level. Our experience this morning will tell us if videoconferencing should be used more as a cost-effective way to communicate better with one another.

While I’m used to speaking in front of groups, I must confess I’m very self-conscious right now; this should be an interesting experience.

Before I take questions or comments, I thought it would be important to talk about a few issues I raised at our all superintendents’ meeting last week – where Governor Paterson came to thank all of us for our hard and effective work doing the very difficult job of running our prison system.

I spent a few minutes last week talking about a survey that asked every corrections commissioner nationwide to identify his or her top problems. It turns out we’re not very different from other prison systems. The top five national issues were: budget problems and the impact on staffing, dealing with inmates with mental illness, medical costs, federal Prison Rape Elimination Act standards, and sex offender treatment and community supervision.

I also spoke about how we as state employees are viewed by the media as a result of a few staff people acting inappropriately. I’m referring to Howard Dean, our former Director of the Food Production Center. His behavior and subsequent criminal charges reflect badly on all of us. While his behavior was particularly offensive, I’m afraid we’ve seen too many other employees get into trouble both inside our prisons and outside. No one likes to be the one to call out other people, but we, as agency employees, need to clean up our own house when necessary and stop defending behavior we know is wrong.

I spent some time last week talking about offender population numbers, as well as the number of employees we have system wide. In both cases, the numbers continue to decline. We’re about 900 inmates down from 12 months ago, and about 1,000 staff members down since April 2009. These trends are likely to continue into Fiscal Year 2011-12, forcing us to continually rethink how we operate. Doing more with less is easy to say, but a lot harder to actually do.

Lastly, I spoke at length about what I have set as my goals for the agency for the next 12 to 18 months, and I’d like to go over most of them with you now.

I believe we need to move forward in putting in place a centralized banking and commissary program for the entire system. We can no longer waste time opening and closing checking accounts every time we move an inmate. We can no longer be held hostage by local commissary vendors who promise deliveries and then don’t show up or run out of items all the time.

We have to take a more structured approach to our visiting program. Who enters our prisons, how they behave inside and who should be denied entry based on their behavior is critical to the safety of all us. Proper ID’s will be our first step, followed by new visiting rules for both visitors and inmates.

We need to expand what has become known as our inmate network – our computerized law libraries and digital literacy program. This network will be expanded to enhance our re-entry efforts and then be moved into our academic and vocational areas.

Like it or not, we need to move forward on our non-smoking policy and consider going tobacco free wherever appropriate.

Our experience today with this video conference suggests we need to consider expanding this concept in order to improve communication. We’re using a skype program this morning which seems to work well but is not considered secure, so we cannot use it to discuss specific policy or inmates.

Come next July, we will be required to implement the SHU (Special Housing Unit) Exclusion Law, which requires us to move virtually all SMI (seriously mentally ill) inmates out of any SHU and requires OMH (the Office of Mental Health) to provide additional assessment and follow-up service to any inmate in any SHU. This will have an impact on all our maximum facilities, and any medium security facility that has a Special Housing Unit.

We will be looking to open our centralized pharmacy program this coming spring , will begin work on expanding our Walsh Medical Unit (at Mohawk Correctional Facility) and will look at establishing an assisted living unit for aging inmates who need both help and protection as their health deteriorates.

We will be pushing forward on all these initiatives at a time when there will be a change in the Governor’s Office and therefore a new administration.

I look forward to our future efforts.

Thank you for your attention. Let’s try out this experiment if there are questions that someone may wish to raise.