Gov. Cuomo’s prison closures, policies creating dangerous “powder keg”

Assemblyman Phil Palmesano

Last month, I participated in the Legislature’s Joint Public Protection Budget Hearing examining the governor’s proposed budget. In his budget proposal, Gov. Cuomo has once again asked the Legislature to grant him extraordinary power over our state’s correctional system. He wants the authority to unilaterally close any number of prisons he chooses with just 90 days’ notification over the next two years, by March 21, 2023. Currently, state law requires at least a 12-month notification period. Unfortunately, the Democrat- controlled Legislature granted this authority to the governor over the past two budget cycles. He closed two the first time and proudly announced to employees and their respective local communities, just before Christmas, three more for closure by March 31, which will bring his total to 20 during his tenure.

The Legislature should outright reject the governor’s request for this 90-day closure authority. Prison closures are already devastating enough to the employees, families and local communities, but fast-tracking these closures in 90 days is cruel, adds insult to injury and, shows a complete lack of respect for the brave men and women who have dedicated their lives to work a very dangerous job to keep us safe. Although the administration always likes to claim employees will not lose their jobs, 90 days is clearly not enough time for families. To so quickly force them to decide upon uprooting their lives, traveling hours away for work and to make critically-important decisions about whether to find a new home and new schools for their kids is a severely emotional and disrespectful blow to these dedicated individuals. These personal hardships are just compounded, many times over, by the destructive impact these closures have on the economic well-being of local communities.

Jamming more and more inmates into fewer facilities has already proven to be a dangerous practice with the dramatic rise in assaults we’ve seen over the past five years. In addition, how does forcing more inmates into less space support social distancing and protect staff and inmates during COVID-19?

The governor continues to boast about the number of correctional facilities he has closed, but he fails to take responsibility for the dangerous, “powder-keg” environment his closures, policies and actions, or lack thereof, have created. The fact of the matter is violence, drug use and gang activity continues to escalate in our prisons. How does that happen with a decrease in the prison population they use to justify these closures? He has failed to provide the necessary tools and resources to curtail the violence and stop drugs from getting into our correctional facilities. He continues to restrict and eliminate the use of important disciplinary tools, like utilizing special housing units to separate violent and dangerous inmates from other inmates. This allows for more inmate safety, while also helping to keep our correction officers a little bit safer while they perform their already-dangerous jobs.

It is already common knowledge that drugs getting into our prisons is a major problem which leads to more violence. It is also common knowledge that the drugs get into our prisons through the mail or inmate visitations from the outside. Even knowing these facts, the administration canceled a secure vendor package program several years ago that screens mailed packages and has still refused to deploy K-9 drug dogs at each facility to screen inmate visitors.

Alarmingly, but not surprisingly, Gov. Cuomo’s prison closures, policies and lack of action has led to a dangerous rise in violence inside our state’s correctional facilities, creating a pressure-cooker, powder-keg environment for our dedicated staff to endure. The governor’s own DOCCS departmental statistics tell the truth about the explosive environment inside our prisons. Inmate-on-staff assaults are up 38% (from 759 to 1047) over the past five years.  Inmate-on-inmate assaults have climbed to more than 1000 per year, every year, over the past fi years and are up 31.6% (from 915 to 1204) since 2015. Unfortunately, time and time again, the governor’s criminal justice policies favor criminals and inmates at the expense of law enforcement officials, crime victims and public safety. This is not just a terrible policy. It’s dangerous policy. I will continue to stand with, and advocate for, the brave men and women in law enforcement who protect us on a daily basis, and I urge my legislative colleagues to do the same.

Thank you to all of our brave correction officers and law enforcement personnel who serve us so very well and keep us safe by going to a dangerous job every day.  May God bless you and your families and keep you safe.