Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Letterhead seal
STATE OF NEW YORK
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONAL SERVICES
THE HARRIMAN STATE CAMPUS
1220 WASHINGTON AVENUE
ALBANY, N.Y. 12226-2050

GLENN S. GOORD
COMMISSIONER

June 6, 2006

Honorable Tom Coburn
Chairman
U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Corrections and Rehabilitation
224 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Chairman Coburn:

After your subcommittee receives the report and testimony scheduled to be submitted to you on Thursday by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, I urge you to tour state prisons and local jails as a part of your official proceedings. You will see for yourself the myriad of positive initiatives and programs that the nation's correctional system professionals have implemented to protect employees and inmates while preparing inmates to succeed upon their release.

By way of introduction, I am a 32-year employee of this Department, the fourth-largest state prison system in the nation. I have served as its Commissioner since my 1996 appointment by Governor George E. Pataki. I also serve as vice president of the American Society of Correctional Administrators and as chairman of the Standards Committee of the American Correctional Association.

It is admirable that the commission seeks a voice in the ongoing and long-term discussion of prison issues that has involved us on the federal, state and local levels for decades. As we welcome the commission or anyone else who wishes to join this public discussion, I believe it is incumbent upon us to submit their input to the same scrutiny to which we have traditionally subjected our own.

Accompanying this letter are 20 copies for the subcommittee of this Department's April 2006 report, "Prison Safety in New York." It is posted on our web site at www.doccs.ny.gov. Our report offers verifiable data and documented statistics as well as policy discussions concerning the safety and security operations of our prisons. You should know that during the commission's inquiry, it never sought the wealth of public data contained in our report. Nor did it seek to tour any of our 69 prisons.

I cannot speak for the many other jurisdictions whose facilities and data were not visited by the commission. Perhaps the commission's self-imposed, one-year deadline precluded more prison tours or the collection and study of more data. However, I can say that the anecdotal vignettes in the commission's report and the generalizations drawn from them are not necessarily reflective of our policies, procedures or operations in New York. They are instead documented in our attached report.

New York has already implemented many initiatives that are now recommendations contained in the commission's report. I have also attached to this letter a nine-page addendum that responds to commission recommendations not already addressed in our "Prison Safety in New York" report.

Here, I will discuss three thematic but substantial disagreements that I have with the commission's report.

The first is the commission's own broad criticism of lawmakers and those they highlight from others:

Across pages 7-8, "As this report makes its way into the world, readers must remember that many of the biggest so-called prison problems are created outside the gates of any correctional facility. Congress and state legislatures have passed laws that dramatically increased prison populations without providing the funding or even the encouragement to confine individuals in safe and productive environments where they can be appropriately punished and, for the vast majority who are released, emerge better citizens than when they entered."

On page 85, "In fact, litigation is often welcomed - occasionally invited - by system administrators who themselves are desperate for help that they are not receiving from lawmakers."

On page 106, "Along with the dramatic rise in the prison population, there has been decreasing support from lawmakers for improving the education and skills of people in prison."

Let me be direct: It would be easy for correctional administrators like myself to simply agree with the report and thereby shirk our own responsibility to address many of the real and perceived shortcomings in prison operations. Instead, I believe it is irresponsible for the commission to belittle the real concern and commitment with which elected officials have exercised their management of correctional systems.

State agency budgeting is not done in a vacuum. Governors and Legislatures across the nation must write budgets that weigh prison spending against such equal and competing needs as public schools, highway and bridge maintenance and social service programs. The taxpayers' pockets are not bottomless.

From Fiscal Year 1994-95 through the 2005-06 state budget, the State Operations cost to run New York's government supported by state tax dollars increased by 29 percent to $8.2 billion. During that same period, this Department's share of that spending increased by 44 percent to $2 billion. Meanwhile, the prison population declined by 12 percent. It was 66,750 on December 31, 1994, but rose to a record high of 71,472 inmates on December 12, 1999. It then declined to 63,098 inmates by June 5, 2006. That fiscal-to-population comparison demonstrates Governor Pataki and the Legislature's commitment to addressing prison needs.

Despite the commission's generalized statements on the reduction in funding and concern for inmate rehabilitative programs, such spending has increased by 32 percent in New York. It rose from $156 million in Fiscal Year 1994-95 to $205 million in Fiscal Year 2005-06. New York's commitment to full programming remained in full force while "three strikes" and similar laws around the nation led some jurisdictions to de-emphasize and reduce funding for inmate programs. Key indicators also show our improvement in recent years in the number of inmates participating in and completing major programs, as shown in the attached report.

The commission's generalized criticisms of lawmakers are also belied in New York by Governor Pataki's initiatives leading to legislative actions which are detailed in our attached report:

I do not presume to think that New York's record is unique. I believe the commission should have devoted more resources to going out and examining on-site the successes - and the failures - of policies and operations in state prisons around the nation. That would have offered a counterpoint to some of the undocumented and anecdotal information provided in the testimony of many witnesses selected by the commission to appear at its four hearings around the nation.

The second point in the commission's report to which I object is contained on page 81 in its proposal to establish national, non-governmental oversight of prisons. While this at first glance might sound like a good idea, we all know the devil is often in the proverbial details:

"What is needed is a new, national non-governmental organization that is committed to working with corrections leaders outside of advocacy and litigation channels, bringing a fresh eye and credible voice to new and old problems.The work of such a group would not be subject to public review, would not result in externally published reports, and would not be available in litigation involving facilities that invite its assistance." (Italics added)

Simply put, we would oppose the results of such "work" being restricted to secret memos or reports, no matter how well-intentioned the purpose might be.

This recommendation flies in the face of ongoing efforts in New York to expand upon our Freedom of Information Law. In New York at least, the fact that a government document includes criticisms of it is (and should be) woefully insufficient cause to deny its existence and withhold it from the public.

Some would argue, correctly in my view, that its criticisms are reason enough for disclosure, if only to spark public debate. Such secrecy also contradicts the extensive discussion in our attached report of this Department's efforts to be far more open to public scrutiny than the minimum required by the federal courts.

Lastly, I question the role the self-appointed commission seeks to perform in recommending standards of operation, programming and administration for correctional facilities.

It is up to lawmakers and correctional administrators in each jurisdiction to determine if state prisons or local jails will enter into voluntary agreements with non-governmental organizations. Those could include opting to seek accreditation from the American Correctional Association by meeting its minimum standards for operations and management. They could include deciding to work with the American Society of Correctional Administrators to standardize the reporting and collection of data for comparative purposes. But no agency of state or local government can or should be compelled to consider, let alone implement, operational/ administrative standards or policies from this commission or any other non-governmental entity.

Simply put, such self-appointed entities should have no expectation that they will be allowed to "co-manage" correctional facilities. They can simply walk away if the policies they advocated are implemented and have the unforeseen consequence of leading to or contributing to prison unrest - or worse. The responsibility for correctional operations will always and rightly rest with elected officials and prison administrators. I believe New Yorkers, who elect a Governor and 212 members of its Legislature, expect them to collectively bear total responsibility for prison operations and inmate confinement. That's why New York has always rejected the concept of privately-operated prisons. It is why New York never considers housing its offenders outside the Empire State, even during past years of severe prison overcrowding.

We believe the record shows that New York's Governor and Legislature are best capable of setting policies and standards for this agency, in consultation with the nearly 32,000 professional and dedicated men and women who work around the clock to keep our prisons secure. They ensure our facilities run in a constitutional manner for inmates, while preparing them to return to our streets. In the meantime, they keep our prisons safe for employees and inmates, as well as for the communities that invited us into their midst.

The work of our employees is detailed in "Prison Safety in New York," which offers you far more of an insight into our operations than the summaries contained in the attached responses to the commission's recommendations. I ask that "Prison Safety in New York" be incorporated as part of your official record as well as this letter and the attached responses to the commission's recommendations.

Further, I invite you and the subcommittee to visit our prisons to see just exactly how we have already implemented and made work initiatives that go far beyond those recommended by the commission.

God Bless America,

Goord's Signature

Glenn S. Goord
Commissioner