Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

New York State
Department of Correctional Services
Glenn S. Goord, Commissioner

Office of Public Information
[518] 457-8182

For immediate release:

August 24, 2001

Thomas A. Coughlin, III, 'the good public servant,' dies at 63

Thomas A. Coughlin, III, whose devotion to people and their needs led him to remake New York's mental retardation and prison systems into national models, died Thursday, August 23, at St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center in Syracuse. Coughlin, 63, succumbed to complications following heart bypass surgery.

With him at the time of his death were his wife of 43 years, the former Joan Frey of Watertown, daughters Laurie and Kelly.

Mr. Coughlin, a member of the state police from 1962-68, was appointed Deputy Commissioner in the old Office of Mental Hygiene (OMH) in 1975 by Gov. Hugh L. Carey. In 1978, he became the first Commissioner of the new Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

In 1979, Gov. Carey named him Commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services. He was reappointed in 1983 by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and retired in 1994 as the longest-tenured prison chief in state history.

Former Governor Cuomo said, "Tom Coughlin was truly a heroic figure. He was devoted to people with disabilities. It was that intense caring that brought him into state service. He was knowledgeable and sensitive. He enjoyed helping people, he was generous and outgoing. The more you knew him, the more talented you realized he was."

Cuomo had been Governor for eight days in 1983 when inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility took 19 employees hostage. "I foolishly wanted to rush to the scene. He wouldn't let me! I was on an open phone line with him during the 53 hours that incident lasted. I relied on his good judgment under fire. He demonstrated intelligence, courage and leadership."

One of the many people Mr. Coughlin brought into his central administration of the prison system is now his successor, Commissioner Glenn S. Goord. He said, "Tom Coughlin epitomized the good public servant. He took the challenge faced by the parent of a disabled child and transformed it into an impressive record of public service that remains unmatched today. His many friends in and outside of government extend our condolences to Joan and their family, thanking them for the years that they allowed him to devote to the people of New York state."

New York state government will remember him as the author of the Willowbrook Consent Decree, still recognized nationally as a model declaration of human dignity and of the rights of the disabled. Others will recall his oversight of the largest prison expansion program in state history, one in which he demanded an equal growth in programs designed to prepare offenders for their eventual return to society.

None will forget his affable manner, sharp and probing intellect, easy laugh sometimes offset by a quick temper, and a ready supply of blarney that was always betrayed by the twinkle in his eyes.

During a distinguished public service career that brought him countless honors and awards, his hallmark no-nonsense and often blunt approach were regarded by many as a breath of fresh air in a government bureaucracy that could oftentimes be stuffy and stagnant.

Mr. Coughlin's goal throughout his career was to harness the best the state had to offer to serve the vital needs of its own citizenry. "I have an affinity for people in situations not of their own making," he once said of the disabled as well as of nonviolent inmates incarcerated simply for their addiction to drugs.

"Our goal should be habilitation, not rehabilitation," he would say. "Why would I want to return the disabled to their unassisted state? Why would I want to return inmates to the streets that they were never prepared for in the first place? We need habilitation, not rehabilitation."

Mr. Coughlin was born in Brooklyn's Flatbush section on February 12, 1938, the first son of Beatrice and Thomas Coughlin Jr. He attended Midwood High School and then spent eight years in the U.S. Air Force beginning in 1956.

Following a stint in Korea, the Air Force assigned him to its Dry Hill station in Watertown, where he met and married the woman who would become his life partner and best friend. They lived with their three daughters on the military installation. In one of life's many ironies, he would open that installation as a state prison in 1982 when, as prison commissioner, he negotiated the purchase of the surplused Air Force installation for one dollar.

It was during this time that he found a new form of stress relief in stock car racing. He built and raced his own cars at local tracks.

Mr. Coughlin was an active member of the New York Division of State Police from 1962-68, assigned to Mayfield, Cadyville and eventually Alexandria Bay. The birth of his third daughter, Tracy, in 1961, and the diagnosis of her mental retardation, led him on a new path.

In 1964, he assumed the unpaid position of executive director of the Jefferson County Association for Retarded Children, which at the time served 15 clients from a church basement. Through his persistent application for federal funds, the Jefferson ARC became the first such organization in a rural area in the nation to be awarded a grant to bring retarded persons back to their home community. By 1975, more than 600 Jefferson County residents were being served at a new, multi-million-dollar facility in Watertown.

Gov. Carey, hearing of this innovative approach to meeting the needs of the retarded, visited the facility in 1975. On the spot, he asked Mr. Coughlin if he would join the state's Office of Mental Health (OMH) to expand his approach across the state. Mr. Coughlin answered affirmatively.

Gov. Carey, however, was taken aback when Mr. Coughlin turned down his offer to make him an OMH Assistant Commissioner. Asked why, Mr. Coughlin responded, "Because I know Deputy Commissioners make more money."

With that, his appointment as Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Mental Health in October 1975 began a 19-year career as one of the closest advisors to two governors and a voice respected on both sides of the legislative aisle.

In 1978, he was appointed the first Commissioner of the newly-formed Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. His revulsion at conditions in the Willowbrook Developmental Center on Staten Island led him to invite reporters into the facility to increase public awareness and support for the changes he ultimately made in the delivery of services to the retarded across the state. He first leaked that explosive story as an exclusive to a young, brash TV reporter named Jerry Rivers, now known as Geraldo Rivera. Willowbrook was closed in 1987.

While the state had opened only 50 residences for the retarded in 10 years, Mr. Coughlin opened more than 400 in four years, providing residences for 4,000 retarded persons.

In 1979, correction officers struck New York's prison system. Gov. Carey decided that, in its aftermath, he needed a seasoned administrator and visionary as his new Commissioner, to restore faith in the system and oversee the growth that was forecast for it.

He again turned to Mr. Coughlin. A system that housed 21,158 inmates in 33 prisons in 1979 grew to nearly 67,000 offenders in 69 facilities by the time Mr. Coughlin retired in 1994. During that period, Mr. Coughlin established a system of prisons with varying security levels unlike the state had ever seen before. He rebuilt the work release system, established the nation's premier "boot camp" program of Shock Incarceration and maintained staff safety and security levels that were unmatched across the nation. His commitment to professionalism has led to New York being the largest prison system in the nation where every prison has been accredited by the non-partisan American Correctional Association, which sets nationally-accepted standards for the administration and operation of prisons.

Throughout his various careers, Mr. Coughlin found his center at Shangri-La, the combined marina, campground and restaurant resort that he and wife Joan established in 1982 at Three Mile Bay on Point Peninsula along the northeastern shore of Lake Ontario. It was the mecca to which he returned throughout his career, and his base since retirement for enjoying more time with his family and directing yet another career, as a consultant on correctional issues around the world.

Besides his wife, Mr. Coughlin is survived by his mother Beatrice; his sister Helen Latham, daughters Laurie and Kelly and their families, and four nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his father Thomas, brother John and daughter Tracy.

A private family memorial service was held this morning.

Donations may be sent to the Thomas A. Coughlin III Memorial Fund, 18835 South Shore Road, Three Mile Bay, NY 13693.

Photograph of Mr. Coughlin, made during a July 28, 1994, testimonial dinner when he retired from the Department of Correctional Services.