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NY State Officials Weigh More Prison Oversight

A growing number of lawmakers in Albany say New York’s prison system needs more oversight to cut the rate of violence behind bars and to prevent high profile escapes like the one last summer at Clinton Dannemora prison. The push for reform comes as the state’s Corrections Department faces at least two state and Federal investigations.

When Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell from New York City’s Upper West side opened his hearing into conditions in New York’s state prisons, he described a system in crisis.

He began with last summer’s escape of two killers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, from a maximum security facility in the North Country – a prison break that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

“It also led to the terrorizing of the community where that prison was located by the people who live there in fear,” he said. “And let me be clear, that is simply unacceptable.”

O’Donnell, a Democrat who chairs the Assembly Corrections Committee, also pointed to the alleged killing of a mentally ill inmate last April.

“At a correctional facility in Fishkill, an inmate died and after the inmate died the official explanation was fabricated,” he said. “What we now know is that the inmate was in fact murdered, murdered by employees of the state of New York.

Breakdowns in security and alleged violence by corrections officers are already being probed by the U.S. Attorney’s office and by New York’s Inspector General.

But during O’Donnell’s hearing last week, expert after expert testified that these two individual cases reflect a larger lack of oversight.

Karen Murtagh heads an inmate advocacy organization called Prisoners Legal Services.  She says after last summer’s prison break, corrections officers allegedly brutalized inmates who had done nothing wrong.

“One person was grabbed by the back of the neck and his face was slammed into a steel pipe,” she said. “Another individual stated that a plastic bag was put over his head and tied. And when the individuals would say that we really don’t know anything about what happened in the escape, they were told things like, you know what’s going to happen to you, you’re going to disappear.”

According to Murtagh, those officers kept no records of the interrogations and wore no name tags. She said that means there’s likely to be little accountability.

Michael Mushlin, a professor at Pace Law School who serves on the American Bar Association’s working group on prison oversight said New York needs better systems in place to keep these kind of alleged abuses from occurring again.

“What’s the state of oversight in New York, on a scale of 0 to 10?  I give it a point-five,” he said.

Those who spoke at the hearing urged consideration of a new ombudsman or independent agency to review prison conditions regularly.

They also urged more access to prisons by watchdog groups and the media and called for corrections officers to be better trained and equipped with video cameras similar to the ones now worn by many police officers.

Republican Assembly members who attended last week’s hearing generally agreed that more oversight is needed. They argued that better systems would help keep officers safe and reduce the number of assaults that guards face every year. 

Assemblywoman Janet Duprey represents the communities around Clinton Dannemora Prison. She said most corrections officers are professional and ethical.

“The vast majority of these men and women do their jobs incredibly well every single day of the year under very difficult circumstances,” she said.  “And I hope as we go forward we don’t every lose sight of that.”

New York’s Corrections officer union declined to take part in last week’s hearing and instead launched a statewide campaign mocking O’Donnell for his role as Corrections Committee chairman.

In a statement, union president Mike Powers accused O’Donnell of grandstanding and said the Assembly should instead focus on reducing the number of violent attacks by inmates against officers.