Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Prepared Remarks by Acting Commissioner Brian Fischer
Center for New York City Affairs at The New School
and The Correctional Association Forum
Forum's Topic: Justice Renewed? Criminal Justice in the Spitzer Era
February 15, 2007

I want to thank The New School for inviting me here this morning to talk about the New York State Department of Correctional Services and prison issues in general.

You should all know that this is my first public talk about prisons since becoming the Acting Commissioner. I previously did most of my public speaking in the cell blocks and yards at Sing Sing.

I came here this morning because I'm convinced that one of the major problems facing corrections today is the fact that we haven't done a very good job of educating the public about what we do. I'll be the first to admit that we have problems, but I'll also be the first to tell you that we do some very fine work with inmates, including getting them ready to return to society. I'm also prepared to defend the agency's efforts to provide meaningful treatment to inmates with mental health issues. I've spent my adult life working in corrections and I know where we've been and where we're going.

Let me begin by setting the stage for today's discussion with who's in prison and other factors that we should consider.

Today there are about 63,500 inmates in the state prison system. That's down over 8,100 inmates from the peak in 1999. Compare those figures with those of California, Texas and Florida and you have to agree that we've done something right in the past six years.

Of those in prison, 36,312 are in for violent crimes against people. Another 13,928 are in for one drug offense or another.

There are a little over 8,000 inmates with diagnosed mental health problems, or about 13% of the population. That's almost 1,000 more than we had in 1999, and remember, our population has declined since then. I can't help but raise the question most critics of corrections seldom raise: why do I even have mentally ill inmates in prison in the first place? Regardless of that question, the Department is moving in the direction, along with the Office of Mental Health, to provide more treatment programs for this inmate population. New initiatives are already underway to address the concern over mentally ill inmates, including those placed in Special Housing Units.

The average time in prison for violent felons is 75 months; that's a little over six years. The average time in prison for drug offenders is 31 months - less than three years.

Almost half of the inmates being sentenced to prison have been in prison before.

Sixty-two percent (62%) of all inmates come from the five (5) boroughs of New York and the surrounding counties of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and Rockland. This factor implies that crime has migrated from the city to upstate localities.

Forty-eight percent (48%) of the inmates entering the system are African-Americans, 26 percent (26%) Hispanic and 24 percent (24%) are White.

Last year we released over 26,000 inmates back into the community. Research figures indicate that thirty-eight percent (38%) of those released return to state prison within three (3) years. Of those that do return, far more return as parole violators rather than due to new arrests. The reasons for such a high figure have a lot to do with problems with housing, employment, drug abuse and a lack of support services many former inmates need to make it in the community.

We're now seeing inmates enter the system with sentences of Life Without Parole and many more with set determinate sentences. We need to start thinking now about what programs are best suited for both groups, particularly those with a sentence of Life Without Parole.

Having said all that, let me move on to the reason we're all here today: to talk about where we're going in the next few years under a new administration. Let me add, however, that I have a problem with the announcement that was sent out by The New School. The very last line of the announcement asks an interesting question:"what kind of support can communities expect?" I believe the comment was meant for me and the new administration, but I submit the better question is; "what kind of support is the community willing to give to the inmate upon his return?" I'm an advocate for an inmate's right not to be shut out of opportunities once released. To put it bluntly, my job is to prepare inmates for their return and it's the community's job to help them once they're out.

So let's talk a little about what we're doing with the inmates inside. Putting aside the claim that we should do more, we're doing a lot already. We provide an education for every inmate who doesn't have his or her high school diploma. What we're faced with, however, is the same thing many outside schools are faced with: individuals with learning disabilities, individuals illiterate in their native languages, and not enough bi-lingual instructors to meet the need. We have vocational programs, but the lack of language skills means many inmates cannot take full advantage of such programs.

We provide sex offender therapy and aggression therapy programs. We offer as many different types of drug treatment programs as we can. We spend serious time providing transitional or re-entry programs, helping inmates get ready for their release. We do more than most people know about, and I need to make that point often.

I know only too well the concern over the treatment of mentally ill inmates, and the criticism over our health care programs. Likewise, I know that the issue of civil commitment for violent sex offenders is also on most people's minds.

If you look at the Governor's budget proposals you will see several important initiatives that the Department will be involved with:

I'm prepared to discuss these and other issues this morning, but criticism without viable alternative solutions that cannot be realistically implemented is not productive.

Forgive me if I've come on too strong. I've been through the good times and bad times in corrections and I have very strong views on what is right and what is wrong with the system. I know what can be accomplished inside. I also know what needs to be accomplished on the outside. I am responsible for over 63,500 inmates and 31,000 employees and I understand, as does the Governor, that things must change. First and foremost is my responsibility to operate safe and secure environments for both staff and inmates. With that as the base, my goal is to encourage a prison environment where new opportunities for inmates to develop new skills and interests can flourish.

Thank you.