Gotham Gazette Wed, 15 Aug 2018 19:21:38 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Rikers May Close. So Should Attica. 18348845950 7d8fe238e6 z

Governor Cuomo at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora (photo: Governor's Office Flickr)

In much the same way that the movement to end stop-and-frisk policing eventually became a rallying cry for political hopefuls, so, too, has the appeal to close the Rikers Island jail complex now become de rigueur among New York City elected officials. Where though is the corresponding clarion call to close Attica, Sing Sing, or any number of New York State’s brutal and obsolete prisons?

The #CLOSErikers campaign highlighted some ugly and undeniable truths about Rikers Island: intractable violence and corruption, heavy financial cost to the taxpayer, an antiquated and dangerous physical plant, and an overwhelming and disproportionate percentage of black and brown prisoners. The movement also emphasized the impact of money; nearly three-quarters of Rikers inmates are there because they can’t afford bail, often in amounts of $2,000 or less. All told, the 2017 New York City Department of Corrections budget was $1.4 billion.

Most of those same truths apply with even greater force to New York’s patchwork of state prisons that hold five times the number of people at Rikers.

There is abundant evidence of violence and corruption in New York’s prisons. In just the past few years, there has been documented abuse, including homicides at the hands of prison guards, at numerous prisons across the state. The prevalence of brutality compelled the United States Attorney’s office last year to charge five former corrections officers with federal civil rights violations, with then US Attorney Preet Bharara stating that “[E]xcessive use of force in prisons . . . has reached crisis proportions in New York State.”

The state prison budget is astronomical. From 1999-2015, the budget expanded to almost $3 billion even as the number of incarcerated people dropped. For fiscal year 2017-18, the Department of Corrections budget request was $3,276,000,000, a figure that does not include the nearly $10 million in settlements doled out by the state for excessive force and abuse lawsuits in the past few years.

And while Rikers Island is an aging facility, it is almost luxurious in comparison to some New York state prisons that date back to the 19th century. These archaic institutions struggle to provide adequate heat in the winter and to cool down in the summer. One can only guess about the layers of asbestos and other environmental hazards that afflict prisoners, guards and civilian employees alike.

The racial disparities so evident at Rikers Island are reflected as well in the state prisons as blacks and Latinos make up 73 percent of the prison population, nearly double their numbers in the state general population. And with 84 percent of the guards being white and from upstate communities, state prisons readily conjure up images of the plantation with white overseers. In contrast, blacks and Latinos comprise 84 percent of the uniformed corrections officers at Rikers Island.

Visits to Rikers Island in the East River across from LaGuardia airport are notoriously hard, time-consuming and humiliating, but visits to state prisons add another layer of torment -- New York’s state prisons house about 52,000 people in a labyrinth of 54 prisons ensconced primarily in remote corners of the state. The majority of state prisoners are New York City residents and yet they are scattered in prisons as far away as the Canadian border. The impact on the individual prisoner is devastating as visits are almost necessarily infrequent and families and communities are destroyed in the process.

Unlike so many at Rikers, state prisoners are not incarcerated because they are too poor to post bail. Nevertheless, a countless number also need not be incarcerated. Although the prison population has decreased from 72,000 almost twenty years ago to 52,000 today, the question still remains whether all those many people should be behind bars. It certainly bears noting that New York State, with such progressive social policies in many areas, remains out of step with regard to national trends in incarceration. According to The Sentencing Project, New York is one of only eight states where the proportion of prisoners serving life or “virtual life” (fifty years or more) sentences is at least one in five. Almost 10,000 people in New York prisons are serving life sentences or its functional equivalent, a number topped only in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and California. This vast number of potential death-in-prison sentences is astonishing, unjustifiable and unnecessary.

Thousands of New York prisoners have served their time, often several decades, remarkably. Many are elderly and in failing health. There are countless stories of transformation, redemption, and profound change. Yet these men and women languish in prison for no reason other than to satisfy a seemingly unquenchable thirst for interminable punishment.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio maintains that the population at Rikers must be reduced before it can be closed within ten years. Should New York Governor Andrew Cuomo feel a corresponding need to shrink the prison population before shuttering some of New York’s most notorious penitentiaries, he already has at his disposal the means to do so – reform the parole process and meaningfully administer clemency.

Last December, the New York Times exposed a dysfunctional and punitive New York State Parole Board: “Commissioners — as board members are called — often read through files to prepare for the next interview as the inmate speaks. The whole process is run like an assembly line. They hear cases just two days a week and see as many as 80 inmates in that time.” Governor Cuomo recently appointed six new commissioners to the Board but vacancies remain. The governor should fill those seats expeditiously with people who more closely reflect the identities and experiences of those in prison and who bring diverse professional backgrounds to bear. These new board members can transform the board by taking a forward looking approach that examines evidence-based risk assessment scores and the individual’s institutional record, as opposed to looking backward and focusing exclusively on the crime of conviction, the one factor the individual can never change.

The discretionary power of the executive to grant clemency is longstanding and deep-rooted. The Constitution expressly vests the President with the “power to grant reprieves and pardons” and most states grant similar power to the governor. In October 2015, Governor Cuomo announced a bold and unprecedented pro bono clemency project in an apparent response to criticism about the few clemency applications he had granted in all his years in office. While the creation of the project is laudable, to date, the number of people granted clemency remains infinitesimal even as there are many prime candidates by every measure.

The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform referred to Rikers Island as a “stain on our great city.” Attica, Southport, Mid-State, Clinton, Fishkill and other state prisons are similar blights on New York State. Perhaps former Governor Mario Cuomo’s ugliest legacy is the growth of New York’s prison industrial complex, as more prisons were built during his tenure than that of all other New York governors combined. His son, Andrew, pledged to church congregants in Harlem to “go down in the history books as the Governor who closed the most prisons in the history of the State of New York.” Godspeed.

Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. He is on Twitter @SteveZeidman.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Rikers May Close. So Should Attica. Tue, 18 Jul 2017 21:17:32 +0000
Bias in New York Prisons Requires a Blue Ribbon Commission Investigation cuomo prison

Gov. Cuomo on a prison tour (photo via Governor's Office on flickr)

According to The Sentencing Project, New York State has led the nation by reducing its prison population by 26 percent between 1999 and 2012, while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10 percent. During these years of decarceration, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in New York than national averages.

Yet, despite New York’s lead in simultaneously decarcerating its prison system and reducing crime, racial disparities throughout New York’s criminal justice system remain unchanged.

Recent investigative reports by The New York Times show how racial bias is infecting New York State prisons. The paper’s investigation found that black people in prison are punished at significantly higher rates than whites, sent to solitary confinement more often, and detained longer.

In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the state inspector general to investigate these “allegations” and recommend appropriate reforms for immediate implementation.

This is not enough.

Governor Cuomo must use his executive power to create a diverse, non-partisan Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate the widespread racial bias throughout New York State’s criminal justice system.

The commission’s independent investigation should go well beyond rooting out structurally racist practices in our prison and parole systems. It should undertake a comprehensive review of the state’s entire criminal justice system, from arrest to reentry, within a definitive timeline.

JustLeadershipUSA believes that those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution, but furthest from the resources and power. To that end, the governor must ensure that the commission includes formerly incarcerated leaders. The commission also should represent the interests of the gamut of other people and groups that interact with the criminal justice system— prosecutors, judges, police and correction officers, people in prison, defense attorneys, advocacy groups, think tanks, victims’ rights organizations, and academics.

After convening, reviewing practices and policies, listening to stakeholders, hearing from experts, and problem-solving for 12 months, this commission should then make recommendations for criminal justice reform to the governor and state Legislature, and disseminate its findings to the public.

In addition to appointing a Blue Ribbon Commission, the governor should use his executive power immediately to address the issues of parole and solitary confinement. With regard to parole, Governor Cuomo should:

  • Nominate more professionally, racially, and geographically diverse parole board candidates who more accurately represent the New York communities most impacted by crime and incarceration.
  • Increase transparency by publicly releasing data annually to provide clarity into parole decision-making.
  • Increase bandwidth of parole board members to ensure that cases are reviewed in person and with the thoughtfulness they deserve.

To truly address the issue of solitary confinement, Governor Cuomo should create a timeline for discontinuing the use of all solitary confinement and punitive segregation throughout the state prison system. He should also direct the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDOCCS) to immediately ensure that far fewer people are placed in solitary confinement.

And if people are sent to solitary, at the very least conditions and health care should be improved, time spent in solitary should be reduced, and detainees should receive a clear path, based on achievable goals, to earn their way out of solitary.

We will not dismantle hundreds of years of racial bias and discrimination in our criminal justice system in a vacuum. Instead, we must collaborate and engage with impacted people from varying walks of life.

If Governor Cuomo is truly committed to creating systemic change, the creation of a nonpartisan Blue Ribbon Commission is critical to uncovering the disparities in our prisons and our broader criminal justice system and identifying and implementing solutions. Together, we can work toward restoring a historically broken and racially inequitable system.

Glenn E. Martin is the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), a national organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. JLUSA empowers people most affected by incarceration to drive policy reform. Martin is a national leader and criminal justice reform advocate who spent six years in New York prisons. He is the recipient of the 2016 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. On Twitter @GlennEMartin.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Bias in New York Prisons Requires a Blue Ribbon Commission Investigation Thu, 15 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Another Legislative Session Ends with Thousands Still in Solitary prison photo bob

photo: Bob Jagendorf

Earlier this month, I saw Mariposa & the Saint: From Solitary Confinement, A Play Through Letters. Actress and activist Julia Steele Allen plays Sara Foneseca, or Mariposa, as she is referred to in the play, and uses Mariposa’s own words to express her experiences in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at a women’s prison in California. For the past ten years the two women have been corresponding through letters; the play is a collaboration that grew from this communication.

In one of the most disturbing parts of the play, Mariposa shares in a letter to Allen that a woman in the prison has committed suicide. Mariposa seems frantic and in shock at the calm response from the prison personnel. She exclaims there was no sense of urgency. It seems, she says, as if they were saying, “nothing to see here folks, just your average, run of the mill, scheduled suicide.” Mariposa tries to keep her spirits up although it is evident that she is slowly fading. At one point in the play she explains she refused to leave her cell -- even to shower -- for eight months.

The performance was followed by a workshop discussion on the issue of solitary confinement during which Regina, who was incarcerated in Albion Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, shared horror stories of her own experiences in “the box.” She noted that many of her peers were not even allowed to send or receive letters, practices considered privilege and meted out by the guards, despite being one of the only forms of human communication they had left.

There are 2.5 million people incarcerated today in the United States, and while it’s rare for the experiences of these people to be given a public viewing such as Mariposa provides, public demands to reform prison conditions and to end mass incarceration are growing. As are calls to end the torturous practice of solitary confinement.

Allen has brought “Mariposa & the Saint” on a national tour of eight states, including New York, which all have active campaigns and pending legislation to end or reform the conditions of solitary confinement. Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act (A. 4401/S. 2659) is a piece of legislation that has yet to pass through the New York State Legislature, despite being introduced for years. This bill would create substantive alternatives to solitary confinement, place strict limitations on the use and permitted durations of confinement, and improve due process protections for people facing disciplinary infractions.

The Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement in New York (CAIC), a community group consisting of advocates, legal service providers, formerly incarcerated community members, and family members, has supported the HALT Solitary Confinement Act since 2014.

Last month, “Mariposa & the Saint” was performed for members of the state Legislature, hosted by the Women of Color Sub-Committee of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, & Asian Legislative caucus including Assemblymembers Maritza Davila and Latoya Joyner, along with Assemblymember Jeffrion L. Aubry, and state Senator Bill Perkins. Additionally, in early May, CAIC organized a lobby day which resulted in HALT now boasting more than 60 sponsors in the Assembly. Despite this support, the bill did not pass this year and remained in the Assembly’s Crime Victims, Crime and Correction committee until the end of the session. What was left out of the final Albany deals earlier this month was prison reform for thousands in solitary confinement, which has been denounced by Pope Francis, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, and President Obama.

The play was performed on Friday, June 10 at The New Settlement Community Campus in the Bronx, located in Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s home district in hopes of adding pressure to the Speaker so that he would use his authority to bring HALT to a vote before the session ended.

Solitary confinement is torture and can lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences such as depression, alienation, suicide, and withdrawal. Solitary Watch estimates 80,000 to 100,000 incarcerated people are held in some form of isolated confinement at any time in the United States, most spending 23 or more hours a day in their cells. Dr. Terry Kupers told The New York Times, “many [formerly incarcerated individuals] still carried the psychological legacy of their confinement.”

New York State legislators did not act to reform the torture happening in their state prisons. Governor Cuomo, state legislators, and all New Yorkers must see and say that solitary is torture. It is time that we all demand reforms to end, or at least significantly limit, the use of solitary here in New York.

Jennie Encalada is a Brooklyn-based social worker and activist. On Twitter: @jenjeno07. Mariposa & the Saint completed it's 2015-2016 national tour this June, but has further plans. Learn more about the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC).

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Another Legislative Session Ends with Thousands Still in Solitary Mon, 27 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Newest Prison Sentences Remind of Limited Movement on Even Agreed Upon Reforms Heastie Cuomo Flanagan

Albany leaders (photo: The Governor's Office via flickr)

Last week, two former New York State Assembly Democrats were sentenced in federal corruption cases. While the punishment bestowed upon each may warn current lawmakers to toe ethical lines, progress on concrete reforms aimed at curbing the type of behavior that landed William Boyland Jr. and William Scarborough in prison has been slow to materialize.

Boyland Jr., of Brooklyn, received 14 years for taking part in bribery and extortion plots and for defrauding the state of hundreds of thousands of dollars by claiming travel expenses he never incurred. Scarborough, of Queens, was sentenced to 13 months for defrauding the state of at least $40,000 by claiming fraudulent travel expenses. Scarborough pleaded guilty and resigned his seat in May, while Boyland stood trial after refusing a plea deal, and was convicted in March of last year.

"The most powerful message that has been sent to incumbents is that they better be careful because people are actually watching them," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group when asked whether any real action has been taken in Albany to prevent similar cases of corruption.

Regardless of that powerful message, sent by prosecutors, and the many other indictments and convictions of legislators on corruption charges, both houses of the state legislature have yet to make good on ethics reforms agreed to in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in April that both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos had agreed to a series of ethics tweaks that included setting new rules for what is required for lawmakers to be reimbursed for their travel and stripping the pensions from public employees who are convicted of felonies. With the legislative session long over, the pension-forfeiture plan is still up in the air, while critics say the per diem requirements set by both houses do little to prevent intentional fraud.

In the 2016 budget - which went into effect April 1, 2015 - the legislature agreed to install an electronic verification system for legislators to prove their presence in the capitol, and according to Cuomo's office, "develop and implement policies to verify attendance at official events and establish standards and limits for reimbursable events."

Assembly Speaker Heastie, a Bronx Democrat who has been one of the top participants in the per diem system, released new regulations for Assembly travel reimbursement this spring, satisfying what had been agreed to in the budget.

In May, Heastie announced new rules for acceptable documentation to prove a member is in Albany when he or she claims per diem expenses. Acceptable forms of documentation now include an electronic recording of a member's vote in committee, session attendance, swiping a machine in the Assembly's Legislative Office Building, EZ Pass documentation, recorded presence at a public hearing, or even dated receipts from hotels and restaurants in the region.

Critics note that the system could easily be gamed by having staffers faking an Assembly member's presence. The system also does nothing to ensure a member is actually doing the people's work while in the area and collecting per diems.

In June, Heastie issued new rules for reimbursement of travel expenses incurred when the legislature is not in session. The rules mandate that legislators seek approval from Heastie's office if they want to be reimbursed for out-of-session trips exceeding 30. Members can receive the full reimbursement rate of $172-a-day for 20 of their 30 allowed trips.

Critics note the rules for out-of-session travel aren't exactly strict. "The overwhelming majority of the members of the Assembly are men and women of integrity and honor and these new rules will reflect our house's commitment to the highest standards of accountability for the public resources entrusted in us," Heastie said in a statement announcing the new rules in June.

Senate Republicans, who control that house, issued a similar set of requirements on June 19. Senate standards for collecting per diems include documenting presence in session, swiping an electronic reader, EZ Pass, train tickets, toll receipts, press clippings or meeting agendas.

"This stuff makes it less likely people will make dumb mistakes," said Horner. "But when you look at those two cases, it seems like Scarborough may have just made some dumb mistakes, while Boyland concocted an elaborate scheme, and these changes won't do anything to stop someone who puts effort into defrauding the state."

Some legislators have been caught using campaign funds to pay for travel and then having the state reimburse them for the same expenses. John Kaehny of good government group Reinvent Albany said that there are fairly straightforward ways to prevent any sort of double-dipping. Kaehny suggests ending reimbursements altogether and simply providing legislators with a per diem expense card. "The card would simply stop working if per diems are exceeded," said Kaehny.

Kaehny said he would also like to see all per diem data sent directly to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and format per diem expenditure reports in a way that they could be directly compared to campaign expenses so that double-dipping could be easily identified.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, has also advocated ending per diems altogether. "Legislators should be reimbursed for their actual costs of travel. Total reimbursements should be capped. And that should be it," Schneiderman said during a speech in March.

Schneiderman has also called for sweeping campaign finance and ethics reforms, including term-limits for state legislators, and said he is done with small tweaks, though even those seemingly smaller moves seem difficult to get implemented.

Senate Republicans acted first on the pension forfeiture measure that was agreed to in the budget. They passed a constitutional amendment that would have stripped the pensions of public employees who commit felonies. Assembly Democrats did not act in kind. Facing pressure from unions and some elected officials, the Assembly stalled and then eventually introduced an amended bill that strictly defines which public and appointed officials could have their pensions stripped.

Republicans balked at the Assembly version and both houses left town with no resolution to the issue.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb railed against the Assembly Majority's stance on the pension-forfeiture bill during last session. He has long-advocated a host of reforms that are unlikely to see the light of day in the Assembly.

"With two former Assemblymen headed to prison, we are reminded that Albany's corruption problem isn't going to fix itself," Kolb said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Assembly Republicans have pushed for pension forfeitures, term limits for leadership positions, a new independent public ethics committee – but our efforts have been blocked by Democrats each time. In March, Assembly Democrats walked away from an agreed-upon pension forfeiture bill, and came back in the last days of session with a weaker version they knew would never become law. Their actions demonstrate a lack of courage and complete refusal to address the corruption issue. The allegiance to the status quo is what prevents real reform from taking place at the Capitol."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Newest Prison Sentences Remind of Limited Movement on Even Agreed Upon Reforms Wed, 23 Sep 2015 02:34:54 +0000