'This is not normal': Union says N.Y. prison is 'poster child' for rising inmate violence

The state's law limiting solitary confinement, along with other administrative and legislative actions, "water down" the disciplinary system, union leaders say

By Robert Harding
The Citizen

AUBURN, N.Y. — Auburn Correctional Facility is emerging from a lockdown, but the union representing correction officers hopes the state will act to address the uptick in violence at the prison.

The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, along with elected leaders and Cayuga County law enforcement agencies, held a press conference outside of the maximum-security prison on Thursday. It was a show of support for correction officers at the prison, which the union calls a "poster child for inmate violence."

Auburn prison was placed into lockdown on Aug. 8 after an incarcerated individual seriously injured an officer. Mark Deburgomaster, NYSCOPBA's western region vice president, said the officer had a seven-inch gash from the corner of his mouth to behind his ear. He needed 30 stitches to close the wound.

"The image of this injury is horrific," Deburgomaster said. "Besides the physical injury itself, this officer will carry the emotional scar of this attack with him for the rest of his life."

While that attack was the most severe, there have been others during the lockdown at Auburn Correctional Facility. In one incident, Deburgomaster said an officer was stabbed in the hand by an incarcerated individual who created a weapon out of a broomstick.

When the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ordered the lockdown, there was a facility-wide search for contraband. Emergency response teams were brought in to assist with the search.

DOCCS did not respond to The Citizen's questions about the search and how many weapons were found. Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for DOCCS, said the search "was completed and the facility is slowly reopening."

Deburgomaster didn't have specific numbers but said there were more than two dozen weapons found in cells.

"Some of these weapons are quite horrifying," he said. "As fast as we get the weapons out of their cells, they're already making new ones."

The lockdown also didn't prevent violence in the prison. An unknown number of officers have been injured. Deburgomaster said the injuries range from exposure to blood to broken bones.

Even as the facility moves toward ending the lockdown, there are attacks on staff. There was an incident in the mess hall on Wednesday, according to Deburgomaster.

"Tensions are high inside," he said. "The inmates know they have the upper hand. We feel as though we don't have the backing of the state."

NYSCOPBA filed a lawsuit in May accusing the state of civil rights violations and aiming to block the implementation of a solitary confinement reform law. The measure, known as HALT, limits the use of segregated confinement to 15 days and requires the establishment of residential rehabilitation units, an alternative to special housing units.

The state, represented by the attorney general's office, has not filed an answer to the complaint. Instead, it asked the court for permission to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. During a July 20 pre-motion conference, U.S. District Court Judge Mae A. D'Agostino allowed the state to file the dismissal motion over the objection of NYSCOPBA's attorneys. The deadline for that motion is Sept. 20.

The union believes the HALT law, along with other administrative and legislative actions, "water down" the disciplinary system, according to Deburgomaster.

There are some state lawmakers who support NYSCOPBA's cause, including Assemblyman John Lemondes, who attended the press conference across from Auburn prison. Lemondes' district includes the city of Auburn.

"We have a solemn obligation to enable those who serve and protect us to be able to do their jobs safely," he said. "Let's not forget that."

(c)2021 The Citizen, Auburn, N.Y.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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