Occupancy, Staffing & Safety Issues in the New York State Prison System
By Brian Fischer
New York State prisons are under-crowded.
More than 5,000 general confinement beds, in staffed and unstaffed housing units, sit vacant in our State prison system. That’s nearly one vacant bed for every 10 inmates.
As the Assembly Minority holds public forums on the correctional workforce this summer in various locations, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association is asserting just the opposite - that our prison system is operating at over 100 percent of capacity.
NYSCOPBA relies on a decades-old, federally-mandated statistic that measures the total number of inmates only against the number of “permanent” general confinement beds in the system. But there is never a time when every inmate needs a general confinement bed; far from it. Every day, thousands of inmates are in infirmary beds and mental health observation cells, out to court or serving disciplinary sanctions in Special Housing Unit cells.
The statistic doesn’t count those thousands of beds. Nor does it count 2,183 general confinement beds that were originally installed as “temporary” beds. In reality, those beds have been in use for years, will continue to be used, and are in the process of being reclassified as “permanent” beds through authorization by the State Commission of Correction (SCOC), the agency that oversees the Department of Correctional Services.
The plain fact is, we have so many vacancies that last fall I closed 48 housing units containing 1,900 general confinement beds in 21 medium and minimum security correctional facilities, saving State taxpayers millions of dollars by not having to fill 334 no longer required Correction Officer positions. No Officers lost their jobs and not a single one even had to transfer to another facility because I selected the 48 units based upon staff vacancies. We transferred the inmates to vacant beds in other units without adding a single bed anywhere.
We were still left with more than 3,300 general confinement beds available for immediate use in staffed housing units. That’s why on July 1 we closed three correctional camps with nearly 900 beds, most of them unused in recent years. And it’s why we can, should and will close six prison annexes with more than 1,100 beds (all of them unused as of September) on October 1 – still leaving the system with more than 1,000 vacant general confinement beds available. Keeping the camps and annexes open would cost you and other State taxpayers $31 million a year. That is an expense you should not have to bear.
NYSCOPBA urges eliminating double-bunks and double cells rather than closing facilities, which it maintains will make the prison system more dangerous. But that assertion constitutes speculation not rooted in history or factual evidence.
When the inmate population increased and we added beds, we also added additional Correction Officers and supervisors to provide the appropriate level of security. When the inmate population subsided, we reduced staff and took down any double-bunks in prototype dorms that obstructed security staff’s vision. The double-bunks that remain in prototype dorms are stationed along back walls, ensuring that every bed is in full view of the supervising Correction Officer. Almost all of our double-bunks meet the minimum standards set by SCOC, which has granted temporary variances for the 337 beds that don’t.
Of our double-cells, nearly three quarters were designed, built and intended for double-occupancy. The others were converted to double-occupancy with the approval of both SCOC and the courts.
This year’s closures are a natural extension of last fall’s housing unit consolidations. And even after those consolidations, the pace of inmate assaults has remained at or near historic lows; this year’s rate of assaults on staff is virtually unchanged from 2008, while the rate of assaults on other inmates is actually on pace to be lower than last year.
NYSCOPBA is understandably upset about the loss of Correction Officer positions. But every Correction Officer at a closure facility has and will be offered another post within the State prison system, and I have been working with union leaders to ensure that those Officers are given every opportunity for transfer within the constraints of the law and the NYSCOPBA contract.
I recognize that we in administration must also do our part. That is why, since the beginning of the 2008-09 State fiscal year, I have reduced the number of administrative employees through vacancies by a larger percentage than the reduction in Correction Officer positions.
We are creating a more efficient prison system that protects State taxpayers while preserving the necessary jobs of the brave and dedicated New Yorkers who help keep our correctional facilities safe.
The author is Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services