Daniel L. Feldman

Chairing the Committee on Correction: Maximum Security

In General on January 20, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I can say, with some confidence, that I spent more time in prison than any other New York elected official who was never convicted of a crime. New York had 62 correctional facilities – prisons – in the twelve years I chaired the Assembly Committee on Correction, and I spent time in most of them. This experience made me see that we needed fewer prisons, not more, and that we really needed to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws, as I explained in Tales from the Sausage Factory. But my prison experience taught me many other things.

For one, it undid some preconceptions about who serves time for what. I remember a long talk, early in my tenure, with a highly intelligent and articulate inmate who had done graduate work at NYU prior to his business career. He corrected my assumption that he was doing time for embezzlement or some other white collar crime. He was a kidnapper, for profit. I made similar assumptions about the slight Chinese-American fellow, also at Green Haven, a prison near Beacon, New York, in Dutchess County, housing a lot of lifers. This fellow murdered someone, with a knife. The prison warden – superintendent, in modern lingo – explained to me that a whole category of small guys characteristically committed murder. These fellows grew up in tough places, where a fast response to a threat might save their lives. However, sometimes they overestimated the threat, a realization that came after the lightning-fast thrust of their knife into the gut of the perceived attacker. The big muscular fellows tended to be much less dangerous, because they rarely felt threatened.

For a long time, New York had an unofficial system for dealing with especially difficult inmates. It sent the worst inmates to the same prisons it sent the worst correction officers. Great Meadow, in the far northeast of the state, took the prize. There, the inmates might well attack the officers, but the inmates surely got the worst of it. As I visited the various facilities, I could sense the differences in atmosphere. Attica, although not as bad as Great Meadow, still retained the deeply grim and oppressive character that had been exemplified in the 1971 riot there, where the National Guard killed dozens of inmates. Clinton Correctional, in Dannemora, New York, with about 3000 inmates, is the state’s largest prison and one of its oldest. Its mere size makes it fairly oppressive.

Green Haven, in contrast, generally impressed me as a relatively cheerful place. Although the aforementioned prisons all include lifers, I learned that everything else being equal, lifers tend to stabilize a prison. They have had the time to find that cooperation leads to more pleasant conditions, and since they know they will be staying a long time they have a lot of incentive to keep it as pleasant as possible. Green Haven has an especially active prison industries program, with a big furniture shop, and during my time, an auto-body repair shop.

I had an especially memorable visit to Sing Sing in the early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic hit the prison population hard. Many inmates had used intravenous drugs, and others had consensual or non-consensual anal sex. My visit had the unhappy purpose of investigating the AIDS unit, to make sure it had sufficient staff and facilities, and the much happier purpose of speaking at the graduation of about thirty inmates from Mercy College, which in those days was permitted to enroll inmates in a college-degree-granting program of instruction, provided inside the prison walls. Because I had been exposed to tuberculosis as a youngster, and tested positive on the TB tine test, I was assured that I was immune against various strains of tuberculosis, including the multi-drug resistant strain that frightened many at the time, especially among AIDS victims. In the AIDS unit, I saw several dying men. Sad though they were, they praised the conditions of their care.

At the graduation, I saw something more pleasant. I need to provide some background to explain my reaction. Throughout my service in the Assembly, I spent a great deal of time visiting the schools in my district, because the education of their children held great importance to my constituents and to me. As noted in a previous blog, I also attended virtually every school graduation each year. For the first few years, Jewish and Italian kids overwhelmingly dominated the ranks of the valedictorians and salutatorians. Gradually, though, the Asian kids, mostly Chinese, took over those ranks. Now, at Sing Sing, I was waiting my turn to speak to the graduates as the valedictorian was called to the rostrum first. Oh yes. They get in everywhere


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