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'Racism is the issue here': Advocate pushes for New York state prison reform

A security fence surrounds the inmate housing on New York's Rikers Island correctional facility in New York.
Bebeto Matthews
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AP
Attica Correctional Facility in Attica New York

A leading statewide advocate is calling for reform after a recent New York State Inspector General report found Black and Hispanic individuals are more likely to face disciplinary action than others incarcerated in New York state.

"You can't reform something that is inherently broken, you have to change it completely," said Jerome Wright, co-coordinator of the HALT Solitary campaign with the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NYCAIC). "Racism is the issue here."

The Inspector General report that found vastly disproportionate discipline citations for Black and Brown prisoners when compared to the White population.

Black and Hispanic incarcerated individuals were nearly 38% and 29% more likely than White incarcerated individuals to be issued a misbehavior report, respectively, the report says.

Wright is not surprised.

"Why when you have a population that is predominantly Black and Brown, do you have these disproportionate numbers in all of these areas, not in one or two, but in every area of that system?" Wright said. "And what we have now is a system where you try to put a band-aid on it. And it really needs surgery, and you can't fix it. You can't fix it doing what they're doing."

Among other things, the report found:

  • A Black incarcerated individual was nearly 22% more likely to be issued a misbehavior report than a White incarcerated individual
  • A Hispanic incarcerated individual was 12% more likely to be issued a Misbehavior Report than a White incarcerated individual
  • An incarcerated individual categorized as other was 9% more likely to be issued a misbehavior report than a White incarcerated individual
  • Of Department of Corrections and Community Supervision employees who issued 50 or more misbehavior reports during the period reviewed, 226 employees issued them to only non-White incarcerated individuals, including 114 employees who issued them to only Black or Hispanic incarcerated individuals.
 NYS Police inside Attica Correctional Facility, after riots September 1971
NYSP photo
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NYS Police inside Attica Correctional Facility, after riots September 1971

A second Attica Rebellion?

The Inspector General's report listed four facilities with the worst records, including Attica Correctional Facility in Wyoming County, the scene of an infamous prison riot in 1971, where law enforcement killed 39 inmates, correctional officers and employees, when the facility was re-taken.

"I see what's going on now that the potential exists for another Attica rebellion to happen," Wright said, adding that several privileges have been taken away.

"That department has now taken away everything. They've taken visits away in large measure. They've taken packages from Home Away. They've taken everything. They've taken the mail away. They don't even give you your mail they photocopy your mail and give it to you. How ridiculous is that?" Wright said. " Let me say when I was incarcerated, one of the great things was getting off of my bed to walk to the gate to pick up mail that I smelled before I got because my wife had her scent on it. You don't smell that from Xerox copies"

READ THE REPORT HERE.

The disparities increased slightly between 2017 and 2019, before increasing significantly in 2020, when Black and Hispanic incarcerated individuals were nearly 38 percent and 29 percent more likely than White incarcerated individuals to have been issued a misbehavior report, respectively, the report said.

The Inspector General report also looked at issues that could explain the disparity, including "the severity of and type of crimes for which people were incarcerated, time incarcerated, age of the incarcerated population, facility of misbehavior, and corrections workforce demographics."

In their response included in the report, the state DOCCS said that some of the conclusions made are not automatically connected to the numbers presented.

"The complexity of attempting to link causal factors of racial disparity in the criminal justice system is well documented in the social science literature. As the report states, it is difficult to determine with confidence whether or not any particular racial disparity is the result of implicit or explicit bias or is the result of structural, legal, social, or environmental factors."

"Gobbledy-Gook," Wright replied.

Copyright 2022 WBFO. To see more, visit WBFO.

Dave Debo's journalism career runs the gamut from public radio to commercial radio, from digital projects to newspapers. With over 30 years of experience, he's produced national television news programs and has worked as both a daily and weekly print journalist and web editor.