Friend: Governor’s Prison Closures Is Dangerous Policy

Assemblyman Christopher Friend (R,C,I-Big Flats) has serious concerns over the governor’s intention of closing three more prisons in the state. Current housing and staffing in state prisons has inmates dangerously double-bunked in dormitories and officers outnumbered, as they are responsible for 60 inmates per one officer. Two maximum security prisons are situated in the assemblyman’s district, Elmira Correctional Facility and Southport Correctional Facility.

“The governor has been bragging about his prison closure history as if it was some huge success, but all I see is increasing dangers in our correctional facilities that jeopardizes the safety of inmates, officers and civilian staff,” said Friend. “I support criminal justice reforms, but cramming distressed individuals into smaller spaces to artificially give cause to close prisons is no victory for anyone involved.”

Friend contends that the state should focus on increasing safety for inmates and staff, with officers individually responsible for so many inmates. Should violence breakout, it would make it very difficult for an officer to properly respond. State prisons are dangerously understaffed, causing significant overtime expenditure to ensure shifts are covered by current available staff. About $221 million was spent in 2017 alone.

New York should abandon the double-bunking practice, which is common in medium security facilities. According to the Department of Correctional and Community Supervision (DOCCS), roughly 56 percent of inmates in medium security prisons are violent felony offenders. Double-bunking creates significant visual obstruction for staff allowing violence, contraband, and other dangerous activity to occur. The practice was first implemented in New York prisons under Mario Cuomo’s administration as a temporary fix in early 1990s, a practice his senior advisors had regretted.

Numbers of inmate-on-inmate violent occurrences have also increased, as well as inmate-on-officer incidents. Between 2012 and 2018, inmate on staff assaults have increased by 86 percent to 973 individual assaults in 2018. The New York State Insurance Fund also reported over roughly the same period, between 2012 and 2017, workers’ compensation claims increased by nearly a million dollars. The consolidation of the inmate population in fewer facilities in addition to the pressures created by the reduced use of solitary confinement or special housing unit (SHU) beds, as required by a class action settlement, is placing even more dangerous and non-compliant inmates in the general population putting everyone at an increased risk.

The number of confiscated weapons has increased as well. Over the past decade, contraband seizures have more than doubled. Drugs and weapons are readily being made or smuggled into state prisons and the matter will only get worse and continue to deteriorate safety in these correctional facilities. Friend in particular has advocated for more drug dogs at prisons. Officers have reported that the dogs are very successful at deterring individuals from trying to smuggle in drugs to the correctional facilities. Unfortunately, there are not enough K-9 units to cover all facilities in the prison system, Friend is encouraging the expansion of this program to further improve safety.

Friend points to these very clear areas where violent incidents, seizure of contraband, continued understaffing and overcrowding inmates in housing as reasons prison closure is not the solution to improve safety in the correctional system. Addressing these matters should be the state’s first priority.