Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Testimony of
Brian Fischer, Commissioner
New York State Department of Correctional Services

Before
Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee
February 7, 2008

Chairman Johnson, Chairman Farrell, Senators and Assembly members, thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is Brian Fischer and I am the Commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services.

The 2008-09 Executive Budget addresses two overriding themes for the Department: the change in the demographics of the prison population as evidenced by the decline in the number of inmates, and the mandates placed upon the agency by the courts and legislative action - all requiring major enhancements in the treatment and programs for the mentally ill and incarcerated sex offenders.

These new mandates are costly, as are maintenance of aging physical plants comprised of more than 4,300 buildings containing over 38 million square feet of space, staggering demands for medical services likely to exceed $350 million and skyrocketing energy prices that have pushed the Department’s utility bill over $120 million this year. But the Executive Budget finds efficiencies made possible by the decline in our prison population and innovations in corrections.

Last year, the Legislature passed the Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act – SOMTA - to require vastly increased treatment for sex offenders. Also in 2007, the court approved the State’s settlement of a lawsuit brought by the public interest group Disability Advocates Inc., requiring us to hire new employees, create new secure units and build new facilities or convert existing space to provide out-of-cell treatment and programming for mentally ill inmates. Just last month, the Legislature passed the SHU Exclusion bill, which prohibits most seriously mentally ill inmates from being housed in segregated confinement because of disciplinary problems and adds significantly to staff and service requirements already mandated by the Disability Advocates settlement.

Nearly 14 percent of our population, or approximately 8,500 inmates, have confirmed mental health needs. Of those, over 3,200 have been identified as “seriously mentally ill.” Some 271 of the more than 3,200 inmates throughout our system identified as “seriously mentally ill” carry a disciplinary Special Housing Unit confinement sanction for prison rule violations ranging from disobeying orders to assaulting staff and other inmates. Each of the 271 is required, under the court settlement, to be offered two hours per day of out-of-cell therapy over and beyond their normal one hour of out-of-cell recreation time.

Salaries alone for the additional employees required by these new mandates will top $26 million per year. Required capital projects under the DAI settlement will total about $70 million over the next two years. In addition, we anticipate that building and retrofitting existing space to meet the requirements of the SHU Exclusion law could cost $60 million over the next three years.

By the end of Fiscal Year 08/09, we project spending $36 million to create the secure space needed and to hire 113 additional staff to provide both security and treatment.

The SHU Exclusion law may require us to convert 75 newly expanded Special Treatment Program (STP) beds in Special Housing Units to Residential Mental Health Unit (RMHU) beds and build two, and possibly three, 50-bed RMHU’s on the grounds of existing correctional facilities. These are necessary because of very specific mandates in the SHU Exclusion statute defining which inmates are seriously mentally ill, and the circumstances under which and how quickly they must be placed in newly created residential treatment units. There, they can be offered the enhanced privileges, recreation and out-of-cell group therapy hours they must receive. The need for freestanding RMHU’s has been deemed essential for the safety of all staff and inmates.

SOMTA requires the Department to play a major role in the evaluation, treatment and consideration of sex offenders for civil management. The 08/09 Executive Budget includes the annualized cost of $13.1 million for 1,203 treatment slots in 19 facilities provided by 242 correctional staff.

Re-Entry efforts, designed to enhance public safety by better preparing offenders about to leave prison and return to the community, will also be expanded in next year’s budget. In 2007, we opened a 60-bed Re-entry Unit – the first of its kind - at Orleans Correctional Facility. There, inmates scheduled to return to nearby Erie County are able to meet, in person, with parole officers, employment counselors, social workers, community organization volunteers and others who will help form offenders’ support systems back in the community. Next year, the Department will move ahead in establishing three new re-entry units. Each will link a correctional facility with a county re-entry task force committee, and together with the Division of Parole and the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, will strive to ensure a smooth transition for each offender being discharged from prison to community life. These new re-entry units will cost $435,000, primarily for 18 additional staff. The new facilities will target the western part of the State and the lower Hudson area. We believe that in the long run, this investment will save the State money by reducing the rate of recidivism.

Another element of re-entry is our plan to convert an underused work release facility in Manhattan into a new multi-agency drug treatment and parole diversion center at an estimated cost of $250,000. The converted Edgecombe Correctional Facility will provide parolees from the local area with treatment programs run by the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. Current Edgecombe inmates will be transferred into two nearby work release facilities, making each more cost effective by filling vacant beds without increasing the need for additional staff.

The decline in prison population has created hundreds of vacancies in our medium security facilities and left our minimum security camps virtually half-empty. As a result, we intend to save $10.4 million in operating costs in the 2008-09 fiscal year and $33.5 million annually thereafter by closing Hudson Correctional Facility and Camps McGregor, Gabriels and Pharsalia in accordance with Correction Law 79-a and 79-b. We will also avoid the need for potentially millions in capital improvements over the next five years at those facilities.

Some have asked why, rather than close prisons, we don’t remove double-bunks and move the inmates in the top bunks to other beds throughout the system. The double-bunks we operate have been in place for many years and have allowed the system to operate in a safe and secure manner. And we should recognize a certain level of double bunking as a permanent fact. Spreading out inmates rather than closing facilities would simply create unused space at more facilities. It would not address the real issue of a declining population or the need to find cost efficiencies. The last time inmate beds were taken down throughout the system was on November 30, 2004, when the inmate population stood at 64,011. On January 31, 2008, the inmate population was 62,387 – 1,624 less in a little over 3 years.

We are committed to working with staff, the labor unions that represent them, other appropriate State agencies and local communities to lessen the impact of closure. We are also evaluating all inmate crew assignments in terms of need, cost effectiveness and related issues, and we are exploring the possibility of providing certain inmate crews from medium and/or minimum security prisons near the facilities we plan to close.

The Executive Budget also proposes expanding medical parole to include not only inmates who are terminally ill but those who have debilitating yet non-terminal conditions. It is important to note that this program will NOT apply to A-1 felons. And the selection criteria requires that the inmate's physical condition be so physically or cognitively debilitated or incapacitated that it creates a reasonable probability that he or she does not present any danger to society. Keeping these patients in our system denies medical beds to other inmates who must remain incarcerated and places entirely on the State a financial burden that should be shared with the Federal government through Medicaid reimbursement.

Finally, the executive budget offers savings to local property taxpayers by authorizing the Department to provide low-cost, nutritious meals for inmates in local jails in counties that wish to purchase them. Our Cook Chill operation at Oneida Correctional Facility is capable of supplying every county jail with meals that are identical to those provided state prisoners and that will save counties $730 per inmate annually. The Oneida County Jail already purchases meals from our food production center, 17 other counties have already voiced interest and the New York State Association of Counties has expressed support for the expansion.

In conclusion, Governor Spitzer has structured the DOCS budget to maintain a safe environment for staff and inmates while improving program offerings, preparing inmates to return to the community as productive, law-abiding citizens, and respecting taxpayers at both the State and local levels.

I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Inmate Population Chart