N.Y. CO union calls for action, fears state prisons could get worse in 2022

"There is no sugarcoating the current situation in our prison facilities," said union President Michael Powers


By Fernando Alba
The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.
        
PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — Michael Powers, president of New York's corrections officers' union, sharply criticized the state and its corrections department Tuesday after reports of violence in state prisons reached an all-time high in 2021.

Testifying virtually during the joint legislative budget hearing in front of state lawmakers, Powers noted that the pandemic, reforms to the discipline system and an influx of contraband entering prisons have contributed to unsafe work environments for corrections staff.

He said reported attacks on corrections officers by inmates reached a record 1,173, despite a 40-year low in inmate population of about 31,000.

"The environment inside correctional facilities is harsh and unforgiving and over the past decade, statistics show that living and working in prisons has become significantly unsafe," Powers said.

In 2012, only 524 assaults against DOCCS staff were reported with an inmate population of just under 55,000, according to the union.

In response to the violence, the corrections department's acting commissioner, Anthony Annucci, wrote a memo to inmates in November reminding them of the consequences they could face for assaulting staff and said many of the incidents were unprompted. Powers said DOCCS should go further to protect staff.

"After years of the department hand-waving these attacks as 'isolated incidents,' one would think NYSCOPBA would stand and applaud the state for finally admitting to the violence problem with our facilities. Regrettably, that is not the case," Powers said. "Despite this admission, the department still has not taken any significant, proactive steps to protect our members of this looming threat to their personal safety."

Testifying earlier in the hearing, Annucci said a task force to address prison violence has been formed and includes union representatives.

"We'll get their recommendations. We'll look at a number of different things to make sure we run the safest possible system," Annucci said. "We didn't just want superintendents or central-office types, we want the rank and file to be represented. We want to hear from them directly what they think."

But Powers fears violence in prisons could get even worse once the HALT act, which limits solitary confinement for inmates to 15 days, implements alternative rehabilitative measures and eliminates solitary confinement for vulnerable inmates in state prisons, goes into effect.

[More: N.Y. governor signs bill ending long-term solitary confinement]

"There are very few deterrents in place to dissuade incarcerated individuals from attacking staff. In a few months when HALT is fully implemented, the ability to remove and separate violent individuals from attacking more staff and other fellow inmates will be severely hampered. The incarcerated population is well aware of this," Powers said.

"The violent predators that lurk inside our prison facilities can't wait for HALT to be implemented, not because they believe they are capable of being rehabilitated with more programming and gold stars for good behavior, but because they know the state will no longer hold them accountable for their actions."

Powers said the union has a pending bill for a violence study to be conducted in what he hopes will clarify why violence in prisons has increased.

"We strongly believe we know the reason for the skyrocketing violence, but this legislation will ensure that root cause behind the spike in violence is identified," he said. "Until that violence study is completed, and this safety issue is addressed, we request that any more changes to the state's incarceration model or policies that alter the disciplinary system be put on hold, including the implementation of HALT."

Annucci admitted during his testimony that he had his concerns about the HALT act initially and said the timeline to enact it is an "aggressive" one, but those concerns have been calmed, Annucci said.

"I can tell you we have marshaled tremendous resources in order for us to implement this law as the legislature intended. I created an executive steering committee, and I then created four sub-committees. They have worked extremely hard to structure an elaborate program to go forward to implement it, from infrastructure to changing our disciplinary guidelines, to developing programming for the individuals when they come out of their [special housing units] and their [residential rehabilitation units,]" Annucci said.

"I'm very comfortable where we are and that we'll hit the ground running. I believe we'll change behavior for the better, especially when I heard the program's presentation. We're not just providing them out-of-cell time. We are really trying to focus on the behavior that got them into segregated confinement to begin with. I'm confident we'll be able to make some changes."

Powers also asked that the state's short-lived secure vendor program, which eliminated care packages to inmates from friends and family and instead limited packages from an approved, online vendor service, return. Powers said reintroducing the program would stem contraband coming into state prisons.

Powers believes that corrections staff should also receive more recognition from the state as pandemic front-line workers.

"COVID ravaged New York's prison system, afflicting incarcerated individuals and staff at significantly higher rates than in the general public. This virus has also tragically claimed the lives of over a dozen of our members," he said. "Correction officers continue to stand on the front lines of this pandemic, being forced to work numerous stints of mandatory overtime shifts in order to meet minimum safety standards in our prison facilities."

"Currently, the state has engaged in several pilot programs within the health care industry to pay up to a 2.5 times overtime rate to combat staffing shortages, including staff nurses who work inside prison facilities," Powers continued. "While a small portion of our membership who work in mental health facilities and SUNY hospitals do qualify for this program, it's our strong belief that all correction officers be included in some sort of financial incentive program to make up for enduring severe staffing shortages throughout the past two years of this pandemic."

Powers concluded his testimony saying New York prisons could become grim if actions he outlined are not considered and called lawmakers to action to make those changes.

"There is no sugarcoating the current situation in our prison facilities. The working conditions inside our correctional facilities are abysmal. Acting Commissioner Annucci's memo to the incarcerated population has done nothing to quell the violence as attacks on staff in 2022 are already on pace to shatter last year's record. Contraband continues to run rampant. The implementation of HALT cannot move forward under these current circumstances," he said.

"Simply put, what New York City is experiencing with Rikers is the very near future for New York's prisons. The conditions will continue to deteriorate. The warning signs are there. If these issues go unaddressed by the State, more staff will be seriously hurt and it will be because of the inaction by policymakers and our elected officials."

(c)2022 the Press-Republican (Plattsburgh, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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