July 01, 2002
Prison Watchdog Group Slams New York's System
Report Decries Treatment of Prisoners; State Officials Denounce Attack as Political, Unfair, Biased
by James M. Odato, Capitol Bureau
New York's 71 prisons, fraught with mentally ill, idle prisoners and misbehaving, underpaid correctional officers, must be downsized while vocational services and drug treatment programs are boosted, a new report says.
Slammed for its anti-administration bias by the state Department of Corrections, the report by the Correctional Association of New York touts recommendations that include the group's push to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
"It's not a muckraking document," said Assembly Corrections Committee Chairman Jeffrion Aubry, D-East Elmhurst. "If we don't treat (inmates) appropriately and we release them there is a concern."
The report, based on first-hand visits to 25 prisons between 1998 and 2001, says that in most maximum security prisons, 30 to 60 percent of inmates locked 23 hours a day in special housing units are mentally ill. One member of the association's visiting team indicated that Coxsackie Correctional Facility has "the most depressing SHU he had seen, so cut off were the inmates from the outside world."
Robert Gangi, executive director of the association, said "98 percent of the men and women in prison are going to be returning to the community; we should be doing more with them."
The findings reflect the association's traditional concerns: a prison population of poorly educated people and drug abusers, many HIV-infected inmates and questionable medical care, and growing use of SHUs.
The report also indicates that correctional officers use derisive and racist language, harass and abuse prisoners, are underpaid and are denied necessary training.
Corrections Commissioner Glenn Goord said a response to the report would waste taxpayers' dollars. In a four-page press release, he said the association offers poor suggestions and fails to recognize a sharp increase in vocational enrollments, library usage, diplomas and drug treatment participation.
He said use of SHUs - a total of 3,450 cells built by the Pataki administration - has cut violence, assaults, weapons possessions and contraband. He also said 505 inmates - 23 percent of the 2,235 in maximum security disciplinary units - are diagnosed as mentally ill. Since 1995, 47,765 prison employees have received mental health training, and all maximum-security personnel get such training annually.
Goord said the association was using four-year-old material for political purposes in an election-year. Gangi insisted the problems are pervasive and ongoing.
Denny Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the New York State Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said Gangi's group was wrong to criticize the use of the disciplinary units because they have helped make prisons safer.
He agreed correction officers suffer low morale and are underpaid, but said they are not getting away with misconduct.
"Groups come in there and spend a day or two days ... They don't live it every day," he said. "It's just not fair."