Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Testimony of Brian Fischer, Commissioner
New York State Department of Correctional Services
Before Joint Legislative Fiscal Committees, February 8, 2010

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

As the Governor has said, this is a budget of necessity, not choice. For the prison system, this budget not only reflects the current fiscal crisis but anticipates our needs for the next few years. However painful this year’s decisions may be, delaying action will only make the problem worse - and more difficult to address in the future.

Therefore, I ask that you view the Governor’s proposed Departmental budget for 2010-11 as a long-term approach to the issues facing Corrections. The Governor’s proposal recognizes a number of critical issues:

Inmates under DOCS custody chart

The following chart demonstrates the precipitous drop in our minimum security population and the considerable drop in the medium security population between the beginning of 2007 and the end of last year, while the maximum security population experienced a minimal decline.

Population Change by Security Level Chart

The chart below was developed to give you a flavor of the varied types of specialty beds the prison system has developed to provide the treatment programs in secure settings required to meet the needs of all offenders by recent court and legislative mandates. We never lose sight of the fact that all this must be done while providing a safe environment for staff and offenders alike. The chart’s heading, “Restricted Beds,” describes those beds that are set aside from general confinement beds for the programming needs of certain offenders and to ensure the safety of staff and other offenders.

Breakdown of Beds Chart

This approach has proven highly effective in managing the prison system. But it has also required us to devote significant resources and redefine the use of each correctional facility, limiting which facilities can be considered for closure.

Included among the “restricted beds” are 1,969 treatment beds specifically designated for mental health services. That’s a 29 percent increase from the 1,392 treatment beds we had for mental health services in 2007. This increase was driven largely by recent mandates that required us to provide vastly expanded and enhanced services and programs for incarcerated sex offenders and inmates with mental illness: the Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act of 2007 and the April 2007 court-approved Private Settlement Agreement of a lawsuit brought against the State by Disability Advocates Inc.. The department also faces additional mandates for the care of inmates with mental illness as a result of the SHU (Special Housing Unit) Exclusion Law of 2008, which aims to provide alternative placement to all inmates with serious mental illness and disciplinary confinement sanctions.

Mental health services are located at all 17 of our maximum security facilities and at 18 of our 37 medium security facilities. The location of these treatment facilities, shown in the map below, was determined by external factors largely beyond the Department’s control, including the availability of Office of Mental Health services, doctors, nurses and other medical personnel and the proximity to outside medical facilities equipped to provide specialized treatment.

Mental Health Facilities Map

As noted earlier, while the number of specialized programs has increased since 2007, the overall inmate population will have dropped by nearly 6,000 inmates, or 9 percent, over four years by the end of 2010-11.

This ongoing population decline prompted the Department to consolidate operations in the fall of 2008, saving State taxpayers about $11 million per year, and to close three (3) camps and six (6) annexes last year to save State taxpayers an additional $31.7 million on an annual basis. The consolidations consisted of vacating 48 housing units in 21 different correctional facilities. We did that by transferring the inmates out of underutilized units into vacant beds in other occupied units within the same facility. At the same time, we redeployed security staff from those underutilized units and into other, vacant positions within the same facility. Not a single employee lost a job or even had to transfer out of the facility as a result of these consolidations.

Operationally, the consolidations and closures resulted in a combined reduction of 3,454 beds and 742 staff positions. Of those beds, the Department permanently removed 2,004 and consolidated the other 1,450, which remain in place but sit empty in the vacated housing units. Such beds are identified as “unstaffed” beds, as opposed to “staffed beds.” The following chart shows that even after the consolidations and closures of the last 16 months, the State prison system still had more than 4,600 vacant beds in staffed housing units at the end of 2009, plus the unstaffed beds that remain available for use should the need arise:

Total Beds Chart

Because offenders convicted of non-violent crimes are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the inmate population decrease, while the number of offenders incarcerated for violent crimes has increased, 60 percent of the prison system now consists of violent offenders, up from 57 percent in January 2007. We must seriously consider the impact of this trend on staff and offender safety, as well as rethink our treatment plans. And we must factor this trend into any strategy for additional consolidation and/or closure.

Additionally, as the next chart shows, the number of drug commitments has steadily declined in recent years, and last year’s reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws are sending additional low-level drug offenders into treatment programs rather than prison. Those two factors are expected to continue driving down the number of participants in the Shock Incarceration program, nearly half of whom are drug offenders. That is happening despite the Legislature’s expansion of Shock last year to include otherwise crime-eligible offenders in their 40s or in general confinement and within at least three years of their earliest release. The expansion resulted in a temporary increase in the use of Shock beds when we implemented the new criteria retroactively; however, the retroactive group will all graduate from the rigorous six-month program within the next two months. After that, the expanded rules will not offset the monthly drop in the number of Shock eligible inmates entering the prison system.

Commitments by Crime Chart

All of these factors support the Executive Budget’s proposal to close one minimum security Shock Incarceration facility, one men’s medium security prison, one men’s minimum security prison and the minimum security portion of another men’s facility, actions that will save taxpayers $45.8 million a year when fully effective. In determining which specific facilities to close, I had to look at a number of additional factors, including the small size of the selected facilities, their relative cost, their lack of capacity to offer specialized programs and services we are mandated to provide to more and more of our inmates, reentry considerations and potential capital needs. That is why I specifically selected Moriah Shock Incarceration Facility, Ogdensburg and Lyon Mountain Correctional Facilities and the minimum security portion of Butler Correctional Facility.

Savings from additional housing unit consolidations in 2010-11 in response to the continuing prison population decline will save taxpayers another $4 million a year when fully effective.

The New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA) union has argued that additional closures and/or consolidations will create dangerous conditions. But the evidence shows otherwise. In 2009, after two rounds of housing unit consolidation at the end of 2008 and during a time when we closed three camps and six annexes, the incidents of inmate assault actually decreased from the prior year. Data shows our prisons are as safe as they have ever been.

NYSCOPBA and a number of legislators have also suggested that we should cut what they term “top-heavy” administration at DOCS rather than front-line staff. I’ve reduced Central Office positions at more than triple the rate of Correction Officer positions since the 2007-08 fiscal year began.

Specifically, we cut the number of employees working at Central Office by 9.4 percent since April 2007, from 865 to 783. During the same period, we reduced the number of front-line Correction Officers by 3.1 percent, from 19,405 then to 18,797 as of our most recent count.

I should note that a number of employees counted as part of Central Office actually work in the field for varying reasons. Additionally, the decrease in Central Office staffing occurred during a time when the court and legislative mandates I mentioned earlier required me to add 23 positions in Central Office for oversight of new programs and services. Could we save more in Central Office? Yes. And I will continue to look for ways to do so. But administration accounts for less than one percent of our proposed $2.5 billion General Fund-supported operating budget, and we must move forward with continued consolidation and closure in light of both the State’s fiscal climate and the ongoing decline in New York’s inmate population.

The Department has already cut its spending considerably in the last two years. We reduced our original 2008-09 budget by $150.5 million and we anticipate that we will have reduced this year’s budget by $141.9 million by the end of the fiscal year on March 31. We achieved these savings through a wide variety of actions, including:

Most of those actions will produce recurring savings for 2010-11, and, unlike many other states facing similar fiscal difficulties, we achieved most of these savings without cutting treatment and program services.

The Governor’s Executive Budget would cut our all-funds spending by 8.6 percent, or $283 million. Even discounting nearly $200 million of that reduction because it reflects a one-time lump sum payment of back pay to members of NYSCOPBA in 2009-10 for prior fiscal years that was required by an arbitrator’s ruling – a payment we won’t have to make in the coming fiscal year - spending in all areas of our agency - administration, support, health, programs and security - would still decrease in 2010-11.

Proposed Spending Reductions by Area Chart

Moving Forward

We are developing a number of initiatives to save additional money, including:

All of these efforts demonstrate our ongoing commitment to run the State prison system more efficiently and save State taxpayers money while improving and expanding programming for inmates, which is critical to their rehabilitation and, by occupying them productively, to keeping our prisons safe.

In the coming year, we plan to provide state-of-the-art personal alarms to our civilian staff at additional correctional facilities and undertake analysis of and planning for at least one Special Needs Unit for female offenders with developmental disabilities. The Department currently provides three such units for similarly situated male offenders.

These efforts will require investment, as was the case for our recent positive and groundbreaking efforts in dealing with inmates with mental illness, efforts that have been acknowledged even by some of our critics.

As noted, late last year we opened a 100-bed Residential Mental Health Unit that provides a heightened level of structured out-of-cell programming and treatment for inmates with serious mental illness and disciplinary sanctions as required by the 2007 Private Settlement Agreement with Disability Advocates. This unit, at Marcy Correctional Facility, is the first of its kind in the nation. Work on a second, 60-bed RMHU at Five Points Correctional Facility proceeds and will be ready in time for the Department to meet the requirements of the SHU Exclusion Law.

We will look to institutionalize our successful programs and polices, while undertaking a critical review of our overall effectiveness in several areas, and we will begin to make the hard decisions to remove, revamp or standardize all our service components.

We will also carefully monitor the impact of the 2009 Rockefeller Law reforms and pay careful attention to the impact of drug courts and diversion programs on offenders entering DOCS.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Note: Both the Department and Division of the Budget have historically used total inmate numbers that do not include those offenders under our custody at Willard Drug Treatment Center or Edgecombe Residential Treatment Facility, or parolees in any DOCS facility.

Since we are responsible for the cost of housing and providing services to these offenders, once the 2010-11 Budget is enacted, future inmate population figures will include all offenders to provide a truer picture of the prison population and the true cost of incarceration.