Occupancy, Staffing and Safety
Note: The minimum security portion (annex) of Butler Correctional Facility remains open. All of the other facilities identified for planned closure in this Fact Sheet were closed on schedule.
The planned closure of three correctional camps and seven prison annexes this year has prompted debate over whether New York's State prisons are overcrowded and whether the transfer of approximately 700 inmates from the closure facilities to vacant beds in other correctional facilities, along with the continued use of double bunks and double cells, will create more dangerous conditions within the prisons.
The New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association Inc. (NYSCOPBA) claims the State prison system is understaffed and overcrowded, subjecting employees to the most dangerous working conditions ever. The Assembly Minority has scheduled Statewide Forums on Workforce Issues in the Correctional System “to support and improve the safety and security of New York’s detention facilities.” The initial forum was held in Albany on June 2, 2009, with others scheduled to follow beginning July 15, 2009 in Gouverneur and afterward in Wilton, Malone, Newburgh, Buffalo, Utica and Auburn, with a wrap-up in Albany at the end. Topics include how to improve working conditions and make prisons safer for inmates, staff and host communities.
Prison System Occupancy
NYSCOPBA claims New York’s State Correctional facilities are operating, on average, at over 100 percent capacity. The union relies on a more than two-decade-old federally mandated reporting requirement that measures the total number of inmates only against the number of "permanent" general confinement beds – for inmates with no medical, disciplinary segregation or other restrictions - originally created. This statistic does not credit beds created for medical and mental health needs or new segregation cells.
But every day, thousands of inmates are in infirmary beds, mental health observation cells, out to court or serving disciplinary sanctions in Special Housing Units (SHU). There is never a time when every inmate needs a general confinement bed; far from it. In reality, more than 6,000 general confinement beds, and more than 7,000 beds in all, are vacant.
The federally mandated reporting requirement also does not count 2,300 general confinement beds that were originally and are still technically categorized as "temporary" but have been in regular use for years and will continue to be. Those beds are, for all intents and purposes, "permanent" and are in the process of being reclassified as such.
A snapshot of June 1, 2009, shows there were:
- 59,621 inmates and 67,209 total beds (7,588 vacant beds – 89 percent occupancy rate).
- 53,607 general confinement inmates and 60,957 general confinement beds (7,350 vacant general confinement beds – 88 percent occupancy rate).
- 4,448 inmates in SHU.
- 591 inmates in infirmary or OMH/observation beds.
- 352 inmates in temporary release programs such as work release (physically out of the prison and staying at approved community residences for some or most nights each week).
- 623 inmates out to court or in an outside hospital.
New York has more than 6,000 vacant general confinement beds that either already are, or could be, made available. That includes:
- 3,389 in staffed housing units, including 1,028 for specific programs such as Shock Incarceration, Comprehensive Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment and the Intermediate Care Program for inmates with mental health issues.
- 2,689 in housing units that are no longer staffed, including 1,900 beds DOCS took off line during two rounds of housing unit consolidations in Fall 2008. That process involved moving inmates out of 48 housing units in 21 correctional facilities where Correction Officer items had become vacant. The inmates were relocated to vacant beds at other, staffed, housing units - all without adding a single bed anywhere.
As noted above, additional general confinement bed vacancies include:
- 561 that are out of order due to construction, broken utility fixtures, etc.
- 330 that are reserved for work release inmates who spend certain nights at approved community residences.
- 381 that are being held for a maximum of 10 days for certain inmates who are out to court or in an outside hospital.
Additionally, 559 sentenced offenders ready to enter the State prison system were still in local jails awaiting transfer. A conservative accounting shows 1,802 staffed and unrestricted general confinement beds would have been available instantly even if all 559 “State-ready” inmates came into the State prison system immediately.
That explains why the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) can close Camps Gabriels, Pharsalia and Mt. McGregor on July 1, 2009, and the annexes at Butler, Eastern, Green Haven, Groveland, Lakeview, Sullivan and Washington Correctional Facilities on October 1, 2009, without adding a single bed. The annual State taxpayer cost to operate the three camps and seven annexes is approximately $31 million.
Double Bunks and Double Cells
There are 6,657 top beds as part of double-bunk units in the State prison system. The double-bunks are spread across numerous open dormitories and housing units at more than 50 correctional facilities. In prototype dorms, 60 inmates sleep in one large room. There are 10 top beds, all of which are located along the back dormitory wall, allowing the supervising Correction Officer an unobstructed view of every bed. The State Commission of Correction (SCOC), which promulgates minimum standards applicable to DOCS, has recognized virtually all of the double-bunk units as being in compliance with its standards and has approved temporary variances for the remaining 337 units. SCOC had also approved thousands of double-bunk units that DOCS has since removed. All but 123 of the existing 6,657 double-bunk units are located at medium or minimum security correctional facilities.
There are 2,976 double cells spread over 25 prisons. Nearly three-quarters of those double cells - 2,165 - were designed and built as double cells and therefore intended to hold two inmates each. All of the remaining 811 double cells that were originally designed as single cells were authorized for conversion to double-occupancy by the SCOC. The conversion was upheld by the courts. All but 21 of the double cells are maximum security.
Security Staffing and Other Non-Administrative Employees
From December 1999 to May 2009, New York’s State prison population declined more than four times faster than the number of Correction Officer positions. The inmate population dropped 17 percent, while the number of Correction Officer items declined 4.1 percent – and that includes the elimination of 334 Correction Officer positions as a result of the Fall 2008 housing unit consolidations. Because Commissioner Brian Fischer directed that housing units be vacated at facilities where the largest percentage of Correction Officers had left the payroll to retire or pursue other opportunities, the Fall 2008 consolidations did not result in a single Correction Officer being laid off or even required to transfer from one facility to another.
DOCS is working with NYSCOPBA to minimize the impact on staff during the closure process. Efforts include giving employees at closure facilities the ability to transfer to other facilities and, for employees at annex facilities, adding a special August 1, 2009 revision (mid-way between the normal May 1 and November 1 revisions) to re-rank in contract seniority order employees who have voluntarily placed their name on a reassignment list for another facility.
Because of a series of mandates from the courts and the Legislature, DOCS has had to provide significantly increased services and programs for sex offenders and inmates with mental illness over the past two years. For example, the April 2007 Private Settlement Agreement between the State and Disability Advocates Inc. on behalf of inmates with mental illness required the creation of Intermediate Care and Special Treatment Program beds as well as Residential Mental Health Unit beds that are scheduled to open later this year at Marcy Correctional Facility. All of those programs and beds require staff. DOCS has met those mandates by redeploying Correction Officer and other positions from unneeded portions of correctional facilities that are not equipped to provide the new mandated services.
Since April 1, 2008, Commissioner Fischer has reduced the number of administrative employees by 3 percent. During that time, the number of Correction Officer positions declined by 2 percent.
The administrative positions that have been left vacant so far have produced savings of $3.6 million and counting. Vacancies include an Assistant Commissioner and three Director (department head) positions in Central Office, as well as five superintendent and 22 deputy superintendent positions at the 70 correctional institutions DOCS operates.
Even after last Fall’s consolidations, which increased the occupancy rate in staffed housing units (by filling vacant beds with inmates transferred from the vacated dorms), the number of assaults in prisons is on pace to be lower this year than it was last year (based on complete data through May 2009). In fact, the rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults for the first quarter of 2009 was the second-lowest since 1980. The Department has been free of any major incidents for over 12 years.
According to the most recent report of the American Correctional Association, New York had nearly twice as many Correction Officers per inmate than the national average for state prison systems. New York had one officer for every 3.4 inmates, compared with the national average of one for every 6.7 inmates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has one officer for every nine inmates. ACA data also shows that only 4.4 percent of New York’s Correction Officers leave State service every year, compared with a national average of 17.2 percent.
There have been approximately nine assaults on staff per 1,000 inmates and 11 assaults on other inmates per 1,000 inmates annually in New York’s State prisons in recent years. Over the last decade, fewer than one percent of those assaults resulted in even a moderate injury to an employee. The number of serious injuries to staff was in the single digits.
DOCS, working with the Governor’s Office and the Legislature, has taken numerous steps in recent years to enhance prison safety, including:
- Building more than 3,000 Special Housing Unit cells in the late 1990s for use as disciplinary sanctions for violent and disruptive inmates, and constructing nearly 5,000 new maximum security cells in all.
- Making it a felony for inmates to throw human waste or bodily fluids at Correctional employees, resulting in a 68 percent decline in incidents of throwing since 1995, the year before the law was enacted.
- Working with local district attorneys to aggressively pursue criminal prosecution of inmates for offenses committed in prison.
- Authorizing Merit Time and undertaking other initiatives to reward good behavior, such as honor blocks and the moving of inmates nearing release to facilities closer to their homes.
- Creating determinate sentences for violent offenders with a provision encouraging good behavior in exchange for release after completing 6/7 of the sentence.
- Installing locking systems at maximum security facilities, perimeter intrusion detection systems and various perimeter security upgrades.
- Purchasing cell extraction equipment to help Officers remove unwilling inmates from their cells, and buying state-of-the-art protective vests for Correctional Emergency Response Team members while creating and establishing “CERT” units at new facilities.
- Constructing observation towers at medium security facilities to monitor and control prison yards.
- Installing closed-circuit television cameras at many facilities for surveillance, particularly in disciplinary units.
- Establishing protective custody units for inmates whose crime, notoriety or condition could make them targets in general population.
- Expanding the Correction Officer training program from seven weeks to eight weeks, and adding additional annual training for officers while ensuring sufficient staff to provide full security coverage at all times.
- Installing dozens of Body Orifice Security Scanner (B.O.S.S.) chairs, package room x-ray machines and hundreds of state-of- the-art hand-held metal detectors to detect weapons and other contraband.
- Installing ION scanners to stop contraband drugs from being introduced during visits.
- Providing “spit nets” to protect escort staff from potentially unruly inmates.
- Purchasing state-of-the-art personal alarms for nearly 10,000 civilian employees who work at medium and maximum security facilities to pinpoint their exact location in the event of an emergency.
In addition to improvements aimed at protecting staff from and reducing inmate violence, DOCS has also taken these steps to protect and help its employees:
- Providing flu shots to health care staff and Correctional Officers working in Regional Medical Units and making such shots available to Officers whose posts involve working in infirmaries and on transportation details to outside hospitals.
- Providing automated external defibrillators, which have already saved officers’ lives, at every facility.
- Providing Officers with new duty boots.
- Ensuring Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams are at each facility to help staff with the psychological impact of traumatic incidents.
- Adding a pension supplement to grant 75 percent accidental disability retirement benefits to correction officers who, as a result of their employment, contract AIDS or hepatitis, to the extent that they are fully disabled.
All 69 correctional facilities and the DOCS-run Willard Drug Treatment Campus have been accredited by the American Correctional Association, certifying that each one operates at or above nationally accepted correctional standards. New York’s was the first major prison system in the nation to achieve ACA accreditation for all of its prisons.
State of New York
Department of Correctional Services
1220 Washington Avenue
State Campus, Building 2
Albany, NY 12226-2050
Brian Fischer, Commissioner