NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision 

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:

Thursday, June 5, 2003

Correctional Services honors 34 employees who died in the line of duty;
recognizes two employees with Medal of Merit for saving the lives of others

As bagpipers played, Taps echoed and a rifle squad fired a 21-gun salute, the Department of Correctional Services held a ceremony this afternoon to award two medals for extraordinary service last year and to honor the memory of 34 employees who have died in the line of duty as the result of inmate actions since 1861.

Upward of 1,000 guests were expected to attend the 4 p.m. ceremony at the permanent memorial on the grounds of the Training Academy in Albany. Guests traditionally include family members of the medal recipients and those of the 34 honorees, as well as some of the hostages from the 1971 riot at Attica and their families, in addition to rank-and-file Department employees, officials from other state agencies and legislative invitees.

Commissioner Glenn S. Goord awarded Medals of Merit for extraordinary service to:

  • Correction Officer Mark A. Pietrzak of Wende. He came to the aid of a neighbor whose house was on fire and, along with his wife, helped escort two of her young children from the burning building. Initially unable to get to the second floor to rescue a 15-month-old girl from her crib, CO Pietrzak quickly raced home and returned with a portable air unit. He then climbed to the second floor, crawled in the direction of the baby's screams, removed her from her crib and carried her downstairs and outside to safety. CO Pietrzak, 44, has been an Officer since 1981. (The text of the citations is available on the DOCS web site.)
  • Former Correction Officer James T. Whitehead of Lakeview. En route to work, he and two fellow employees were riding in a van that collided head-on with another vehicle, overturning the van in which the three Officers were traveling. Despite his injuries, CO Whitehead knew from the smell of gasoline that he had only seconds to react. He quickly pulled his two coworkers - both of whom were more seriously injured - from the wreckage. Minutes later, the van erupted in flames. Mr. Whitehead, 46, served as an Officer from 1986-2003.

With today's presentations, the Department has awarded 80 Medals of Merit.

In a proclamation declaring June 1-7 as Correctional Services Employee Week, Governor George E. Pataki wrote: "The citizens of the Empire State recognize that the highest level of commitment among our state's Department of Correctional Services employees contributes to the steady vigilance, dedication and professionalism that remains core values of DOCS." (The full proclamation is available on the Department's web site.)

In his remarks during the ceremony, Commissioner Goord said of the 34 heroes recalled today: "We cannot afford to forget the fallen heroes of Corrections. They are the men and women who came to work each day to perform the duties assigned to them. But in their cases, they paid the ultimate sacrifice in the performance of those duties for the people of New York state." (The text of the Commissioner's remarks is available on the web site.)

Of the medalists and honorees the Commissioner said, "Ceremonies, like this one, remind us that Correctional employees perform the most difficult, and sometimes the most unappreciated, jobs in state service."

In his remarks, Senator Dale M. Volker said, "As chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal and Civil Codes, it continues to be an honor and a privilege to be invited annually to participate in this event representing Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno and the entire Senate. As a former law enforcement officer, I understand the enormous responsibilities that Corrections employees face on a daily basis. It is one of extreme dangers, and that of a strong commitment to public service, in protecting our state from those who demonstrate behaviors that try to destroy lives, families and the foundations of our state. I am very proud of the men and women working in our correctional facilities, as well as those correctional personnel who have fallen in the line of duty, for their commitment to their profession and I thank them for doing their part to keep our state safe and secure."

Speaking for the Assembly, Deputy Majority Leader Ronald Canestrari said, "It is important that we recognize the men and women that work every day in correctional facilities across New York state, especially those that have been killed in the line of duty. The men and women who work in these facilities operate under some of the most stressful conditions: yet they continue to perform admirably, as is evident by the two medal recipients today, Correction Officer Pietrzak and Correction Officer Whitehead."

The Department also used the occasion to add two names to its list of medals recipients. In a ceremony that predated the current awards program established in 1984, two Officers earned awards in 1978 for their actions in the search that year for escaped Fishkill inmate Robert Garrow, killed during a shoot-out with law enforcement. CO Dominic Arena was awarded a Medal of Valor; CO Frank Lago received a Medal for Meritorious Service.

A 34th name was also added today to the memorial roll, that of Auburn Keeper Harry A. Casler. Newly-discovered records confirm that, while supervising an outside work detail on February 1, 1877, a shovel-wielding inmate launched an unprovoked and vicious attack on Mr. Casler. He died within minutes and the inmate was apprehended by another employee as he was trying to escape.

The deceased employees now total 26 uniformed personnel and eight civilians; the total includes three women. The total comes from Attica (12), Auburn (seven), Clinton (six), Sing Sing (three) and one each from Elmira, Fishkill, Eastern, Green Haven and Great Meadow prisons, plus one employee who worked in New York City in the parole division when it was part of Correctional Services until 1977.

Among them are the 11 who died in the 1971 riot at Attica. Three others held the title of Principal Keeper (now Deputy Superintendent for Security) at Auburn when they were killed by inmates in 1927-30. Another was a Sing Sing Officer killed in 1916 by an escaping death row inmate. A hospital attendant was killed by a criminally insane inmate at Matteawan State Hospital (now Fishkill prison). Another was Green Haven CO Donna Payant, murdered by an inmate in 1981. CO Payant remains the only female CO in DOCS to die in the line of duty.

The ceremony took place at the permanent memorial park dedicated in 2000 on the 50-acre Academy campus. The centerpiece of the memorial park in front of the Academy is an Empire blue granite memorial that stands 12 feet high, six feet wide, 18 inches deep and weighs 19,711 pounds. No names are inscribed on the memorial stone. Instead, each honoree's name, identifying details and cause of death are enshrined on plaques located in the memorial room of the adjoining Academy.

[Those wanting still photos of the event can download them after 7 p.m. today from www.doccs.ny.gov]