Forced State Prison Closures Compromising Inmate Safety, Rehabilitation

Legislative Column from Assemblyman Marc W. Butler (R,C,I-Newport)
May 25, 2011

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that California’s prison system has inhumanely breached its designed capacity by 200 percent and ordered that they reduce prison numbers by more than 30,000 inmates within two years. Serious questions are being raised as to how California will go about right-sizing its prison system without compromising public safety. This could mean that convicted criminals will be released in communities all over California before they are rehabilitated.

In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, I fear we are setting the state up to face a similar dilemma. If we don’t want to be forced to release inmates well before their release time, endangering our communities and their ability to function lawfully in public, we need to ensure that the state and its department of corrections properly staffs prisons with officers and ensure balanced and safe prison capacities. We should carefully consider the implications of the Governor’s plan to close prisons and layoff correctional workers.

Some politicians, including the governor, have played games with our prisons, citing thousands of empty beds as a reason to close correctional facilities around the state. The last time any outside state official could accurately examine prison capacity was on April 26, 2009 where it showed that New York prisons were over capacity. Right around the time that Governor Paterson called for prison closures, suddenly, the once tried and true method of calculating prison capacity was no longer used as Commissioner Fischer counted hundreds of temporary medical and disciplinary beds as permanent beds skewing capacity numbers. To date, Governor Cuomo has not corrected this discrepancy and continues to call for more closures in an already stressed system.

If things are as Governor Cuomo and prisons Commissioner Fischer say, why then do prisoners continue to be dangerously housed in a double-bunked fashion in open dormitories, and why are officers reporting that there is only about one officer to 60 inmates who, for the most part, are unconfined most of the day? For a system that is supposedly safe and underutilized, unusual and violent incidents have risen dramatically in the last few years since the first round of closures.

I fear what lies ahead for inmates and officers as Cuomo’s round of closures have yet to be determined. As we’ve seen with the closure of our minimum and medium security facilities, the co-mingling of lower security risk prisoners with high risk and violent prisoners is counterproductive to rehabilitation and a risk to their safety. From 2009 to 2010, New York prisons saw a rise in violent incidents – inmate on inmate and inmate on officer assaults, and suicides doubled. Our prisons are stressed.

We need to be mindful of the role of our prisons in the state, which is to “Enhance public safety by providing appropriate treatment services, in safe and secure facilities, that address the needs of all inmates so they can return to their communities better prepared to lead successful and crime-free lives.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has directed California to reduce their numbers, but as some have pointed out, blindly releasing inmates is not an ideal way of managing the overrun. Releasing thousands of prisoners without adequate rehabilitation is, in my mind, just as inhumane and will lead to recidivism.

I am calling on the governor to reconsider his position and appropriately fund prisons to improve safety and officer and staff ratios. It need not break the bank as there are many areas to cut back on wasteful administration. DOCS for too long has grown into a top-heavy administration, spending over $128 million in salaries and benefits on top administrators in 2009. There are numerous perks, including taxpayer-funded mansion-like homes, many of which are off facility land in highly expensive and desirable residential communities. Finally, there are layers upon layers of bureaucracy that detracts from rehabilitation services and rank-and-file employees. Eliminate waste first before cutting beds and services, or we may find ourselves in a similar mess like in California.