By Ashley Hupfl | The Daily Gazette, Schenectady
Republicans led by state Assemblyman Chris Tague held a press conference last week with prison employees to protest the governor’s proposal to close up to five prisons.
Gov. Kathy Hochul in her executive budget released last month included a proposal to close up to five prisons, but she did not specify which of the state’s 44 prisons would be selected. A 2022 state report found the number of incarcerated individuals in March 2021 was just one-half of the level in March 2008.
Assemblyman Demond Meeks, a member of the Assembly Committee on Correction, said the prison population decrease is due to the state moving away from the Rockefeller drug laws and so-called “War on Drugs.”
“I think, when you look back at that era, you see people incarcerated in droves and I think we’re sort of moving away from that,” Meeks said last month. “And one of the questions I posed last year is that, if we’re closing prisons, why is the budget going up?”
Speaking at the state Capitol, Tague, R-Schoharie, said Hochul made her decision without talking to correctional officers, prison staff or union representatives.
“This proposal will create chaos, force families to uproot their lives and put the inmates and officers in crisis,” Tague said. “These employees are already overworked, under compensated and underappreciated.”
Republican lawmakers said the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association loses an average of 54 officers every two weeks. That equates to about 1,400 each year. Over a five-year period, that would equal about 7,000 officers. A graph on display during the press conference showed there were 19,295 officers in 2018 and 15,143 in 2023, a loss of 4,152 officers over a five-year period.
Since 2003, the percentage of officers leaving the job was relatively low, with the loss of less than 3% of staff — 2011 remains an outlier with 4.9%. The number of officers leaving their jobs then jumped in 2021. Below is a graph showing the staff and incarcerated people population. The data is from a document released by DOCCS Jan. 1.
However, in 2022, there was a 1.8% gain in officers and in 2023 and even greater 4.6% increase in officers, according to DOCCS.
The increase could suggest an increase in applicants following the COVID-19 pandemic. The state’s unemployment rate continues to go down and correction officer trainees receive a $53,223 starting trainee salary with state benefits.
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano said one way to recruit more officers is to enhance officers’ pay and benefits.
“Give them the tools and resources so they can be safe. The numbers don’t lie to people,” the Republican said. “I toured the Livingston Correctional Facility with a former colleague back in 2014. That’s what it was back then. One [correctional officer] for 60 inmates and it was a double bunk at the time. They got rid of the double bunks, so that brought it down to one to 50. So, that staffing ratio has been the case, as far as I know.”
As of January, there were 32,766 prison inmates and 15,143 correctional officers, which would equal two prison inmates to every one officer.
The Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research center, reported in 2022 that the now-closed facilities in 2022 filled just 43.7% of their available beds and more than 1,700 people worked at the six facilities, which detained more than 1,400 people.
VIOLENCE IN PRISONS IS INCREASING
Tague noted that prisons around the state are also experiencing an increase of violence.
“Violence in prisons is reaching an all-time high, while staffing numbers and morale are reaching all-time lows. Gov. Hochul, we are here to tell you no. We will not stand by and watch you destroy families. Governor, these proposed actions will only worsen the safety and security of our communities, other inmates, and civilian employees that work and live within our prison system.”
DOCCS’ Prison Violence Task Force released a report last June that studied the increase in violence. The report found there were 1,469 assaults on staff reported in 2022, a 25% increase from 1,177 in 2021. It was the highest number of staff assaults since the state began tracking data in 1990. There were also 1,486 inmate-on-inmate assaults reported in 2022, a 34% increase from 1,107 incidents in 2021.
Below is a breakdown of the latest assaults on staff since October.
NYSCOPBA President Chris Summers said closing facilities is not the answer to DOCCS attempts to right-size the system and provided different data on the increase of violence
“This is not a formula that is sustainable,” Summers said.
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