Daniel L. Feldman

Chairing the Committee on Correction: Prisons and Jails

In Criminal Justice Policy on January 27, 2012 at 1:52 pm

In 1988, with my blessing, New York opened its first “maxi-max” prison facility, Southport Correctional, in Chemung County, near Elmira. Not only were we running out of solitary confinement units to house violent and otherwise disruptive inmates, Commissioner Tom Coughlin and I felt that we could improve on the unofficial system of distributing “bad” inmates and officers to the worst facilities. We thought that this prison, comprised entirely of solitary confinement cells, would provide a more humane alternative to the old system, based – unofficially – on beatings. In retrospect, I am not sure we were right. Some prison experts feel that solitary confinement tortures inmates psychologically in ways that involve crueler punishment even than physical abuse.

In any event, back in 1990, the correction officers’ union, then Council 82 of AFSCME, wanted me to investigate complaints by the officers at Southport. George Winner, my Republican colleague in the Assembly who represented the area, accompanied me on the visit. Shortly after our arrival, the correction officers and union officials had us don white plastic garments that covered us from head to toe. These “shit suits” were to protect us against “throwers,” inmates who would hide their own feces until they could throw them at officers. As we moved through the tiers, or cellblocks, we heard many of the inmates screaming or raving incessantly. Clearly, a substantial percentage suffered mental illness, whether brought on by solitary confinement or perhaps responsible for their in-prison violence in the first place.

The officers pointed out, however, that during the legally required hour of exercise outside their cells, the inmates moved to an outdoor area with flimsy fencing. Staffing levels did not suffice to assure security either. The conditions presented a serious danger of riot.

Immediately upon my return, I sent a memo to Commissioner Coughlin seeking urging attention to these issues. A few weeks later, nothing having been changed, the inmates rioted and took hostages. The incident, and my memo, made the front page of the New York Times. Fortunately, Commissioner Coughlin resolved the situation within a few days without any fatalities.

Assembly Member Winner, later a State Senator, had won a reputation for especially cutting remarks to Democratic opponents in Assembly floor debates. He and I, however, always enjoyed a cordial relationship. So a few months later, when he rose to debate one of my bills, I slowly and ostentatiously removed from the drawer of my desk in the Chamber the white plastic suit I had been saving for just that occasion. Winner, overcome by hysterics, could not proceed.

So far, I have discussed only maximum security facilities. Green Correctional, about 20 miles south of Albany, houses younger offenders, eighteen to twenty-one years of age, in medium security. This makes it harder to run than some of the maximum security joints: raging hormones and immaturity do not help keep a prison calm. Unlike maximum security prisons, where cells stretch out along lengthy corridors, or “tiers,” medium-security prisons house inmates in dormitory rooms, sometimes with ten or twenty inmates to a room. They still use razor wire to cover their walls, so they protect the security of the outside world in ways not significantly different from maximum security prisons, but the security inside the walls is looser. Minimum security facilities often house inmates who may leave during the day on work-release programs. There, the system presumes that the outside world needs less protection.

Jails run on different rules altogether. That does not necessarily mean they are easier to run. Even Clinton Correctional, the State’s largest prison, could fit into a corner of Riker’s Island, New York City’s enormous jail, which at its peak housed about 20,000 inmates and detainees. Criminal defendants awaiting trial stay in jail, not prison; defendants convicted of misdemeanors, who serve sentences of a year or less, also go to jail. Defendants convicted of felonies must serve more than a year, and they serve that time in prison, except for any credit they may be owed for time served in jail awaiting trial or sentencing. Short-term detainees, on average, cause more trouble than long-term inmates. Often, they have not yet acclimated to detention, and so have not figured out that bad behavior will make their stay less pleasant. They may not expect to stay long, and therefore in any event have less motivation to try to assure themselves a more pleasant stay by cooperating. For these reasons, I think it is more difficult to run Riker’s Island than to run any State prison.

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