The History of the Correctional Association of New York
Report cover

A Citizen Crusade
For Prison Reform

NYCHS is honored to be permitted to post this excerpts presentation of the Correctional Association of NY's 150th anniversary history authored by Ilan K. Reich.
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A Citizens Crusade for Prison Reform was published and copyrighted in 1994 by the Correctional Association of NY that retains all rights.

Nelson A. Rockefeller.

The Rockefeller Years and the
Crisis of Criminal Justice Reform

To view the tenure of Nelson Rockefeller as governor of New York is to watch an entire cycle in the swinging pendulum of public attitudes toward criminal justice reform. Imbued with optimism, liberalism, a concern for human and civil rights, and the dedication to lavish financial and intellectual resources upon equitable improvements in the administration of justice and the underlying problems of crime, the decade of the 1960s was an era of innovation virtually unparalleled in the history of prison reform.

However well intentioned, the policies of the 1960s failed to stem the steadily rising tide of crime and the resulting overcrowding of the state's prisons. Toward the end of Rockefeller's stewardship, the explosive riot at Attica Prison in 1971 became the singular event that signified the failure of the criminal justice system to deal adequately with the root causes of crime. The crisis in criminal justice reform was ignited, only to be further fueled by a financial crisis that severely curtailed government's ability to allocate resources to the problem.

For many years the Association argued that "the imposition of overly severe penalties may be self defeating. Experience shows that juries and courts are reluctant to convict individuals when they know that such a conviction means an arbitrary, mandatory, extremely harsh sentence.

"Picture, if you will, the situation in which an 18-year-old college student sells one marijuana cigarette to his roommate, is arrested and brought to trial. What jury would convict if such a conviction meant a minimum sentence of 50 years imprisonment? And yet this is one of the solutions seriously proposed for the drug problem."

One Hundred Twenty-fourth Annual Report -- 1968, p. 16.

One casualty of New York City's fiscal woes was the Association, which had to resort to spending its sparse endowment in order to stay afloat. In 1973 the Association's investment funds totaled more than $1 million; by 1979 they were depleted to just over $500,000. This financial crisis began in 1973, when the Association faced a $177,000 shortfall in income -- nearly all due to New York City's inability to reimburse the Association for its Civil Legal Services Bureau.

Forced to dip into its endowment funds to pay operating expenses, the Association faced further losses when it sold securities (which it had intended to keep until maturity) at a loss.

The Reforms of the 1960s

The major changes in corrections in the 1960s arose because of the recognition that "the root cause of much criminal conduct is found in poverty with all it involves: ignorance, hopelessness, and hostility toward established norms of behavior." Since "crime and recidivism are but part of a complex social problem," and an all-pervading one at that, closer cooperation emerged among agencies involved in law enforcement and administration.

The result was more research into the problems of treating crime and poverty, new laws, and new experimental correctional programs. New York was a leader in this regard, having enacted a constitutional amendment in 1961 to overhaul and unify the court system; a series of laws in 1962 to improve the administration of justice, including several key recommendations advocated by the Association for years; and the passage in 1965 of a new penal law.

The stated objectives of the new penal law were deterrence of unlawful behavior, incapacitation of lawbreakers through imprisonment, and rehabilitation "as a result of the sanction imposed . . . so that the community is safeguarded from future affronts." The Association's critique of the proposed modifications of the old law was based on its view of how these three objectives should be balanced, after taking into consideration the "importance and value of the individual." Accordingly, the Association argued for lower minimum and maximum sentence terms and greater court discretion in mandatory sentences for second and third offenses. The Association also questioned the wisdom of making public intoxication a crime punishable by fifteen days' incarceration.

These and other measures, together with a shift in the debate on crime from a "get tough" policy versus a "soft approach' toward a more cooperative and experimental attitude in solving the problem, led to a panoply of new methods for treating criminals. They included community-centered correctional programs such as pre-release centers, halfway houses, work release programs, and the extended use of probation, as well as special programs for alcoholics, drug addicts, and lesser offenders.

The Association was actively involved in all these activities, a well as in initiatives to eliminate the death penalty, establish mechanism for victims compensation, and change the bail bond system:

  • In 1965 the Association supported a bill (which was enacted) that abolished capital punishment for the crimes of murder, kidnapping, and treason, except in the case of the murder of a peace officer by a prison inmate. By 1974, however, the Association recommended to the Legislature that the death penalty be abolished entirely, citing the fact that no studies could prove that the death penalty had any impact on the homicide rate.
  • A committee of the Association studied victim compensation laws in California, New Zealand, and England, and its proposal covered "impersonal crimes," rather than crimes arising from "family quarrels and the like." The Association's proposal became the basis for a victim compensation bill introduced by the governor and passed into law in 1966.
  • Research indicated that the outcome of many cases was determined by whether a person was on bail or in jail at the time of the trial; other studies showed that many people could not afford to meet $500 bail. The Association urged that special units within probation departments be established to recommend cases where persons "in the lower socio-economic levels" should be released on their own recognizance without bail, if they had roots in the community."

42 U.S.C. Section 1983 (1964). . . has been interpreted as establishing the federal courts as the first forum for prisoners' rights. This ruling overturned the long-established doctrine that original jurisdiction over state prisoners' rights belonged in the state courts, where one must first exhaust all avenues before petitioning a federal court. See Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546 (1946).

The most significant reforms of the 1960s, however, related to issues of personal freedom. The Association manifested this relationship by its strong views on the need to repeal state control of morality issues and on the need for an expansion of prisoners' rights.

Starting in 1965, the Association began to express the view that sin cannot be equated with crime . . . . In 1968 the Association proposed that the whole panoply of laws governing morality -- abortion, prostitution, homosexuality -- be abolished. . . . It also argued for gun control and a reexamination of "excessively high penalties for marijuana possession."

The expansion of prisoners' rights began with the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established jurisdiction in federal court for prisoners' claims. Soon all manner of arbitrary official actions by prison officials were questioned and struck down, including interference with the right of black Muslims to practice their religion, even though it was historically not a "preferred" freedom," and restrictions on the right of inmates to receive periodicals.

The Association's perspective on prisoners' rights aimed at uprooting the vestiges of civil death laws in New York. These laws deprived a felon of the right to institute lawsuits, to vote, and to hold certain jobs after incarceration. More than fifty occupations, professions, licenses, or privileges (including the right to vote) fell within the penumbra of New York State's archaic civil death statutes.

"Preferred" freedoms historically included the First Amendment right to religious belief, but only for established Western religions. It took some effort for the courts to construe the Muslim religion as a "faith which has the constitutional guarantees of other faiths."

One Hundred Twenty-sixth Annual Report-- 1970, p. 93.

These included the right to practice veterinary medicine, undertaking, or embalming.

Someone convicted of vagrancy could not be employed in a supermarket, as a truck driver for a firm transporting alcoholic beverages, or in any capacity (even dishwasher or waiter) in a restaurant with a liquor license. An ex-felon required the permission of the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles in order to obtain a driver's license.

The Association contended that only those restrictions on an inmate's movements which were necessary to the functioning of the prison, or restrictions on employment which were directly related to the crime committed, should be sustained. Echoing the logic of the founders of the Association in 1844, that punishments and treatments which demean prisoners can only harden their attitudes and make them more incorrigible, the Association's position on prisoners' rights in 1970 was based on the premise that prisoners should not be subjected to psychological and petty subordination, particularly in light of the rapid changes in free society during the 1960s.


The riot at Attica Prison in September 1971, and the traumatic retaking of the facility by force, left forty-three prisoners and guards dead. This event "focused society's attention as never before on the problems of the criminal justice system," demonstrating the futile and contradictory missions it was seeking to achieve. The Association described the root cause of the riot as follows:

On one hand, administrators are charged with developing rehabilitative techniques.... At the same time, [they] ... are charged with carrying out a form of aversion therapy -- officially punishing individuals to make the threat of punishment a deterrent to future crime.

. . . . the available tools and funds necessary to carry out such rehabilitation are so minuscule as to be practically meaningless. . . .[W]hile rehabilitation may be the verbalized goal of officers in their relationships with inmates, this relationship is colored by the underlying 'punishment' concept as the purpose of imprisonment. . . .

While other factors such as racial attitudes, status concerns, and socio and economic level conflicts are undoubtedly involved, the over-riding problem in officer-inmate relationships is that of the conflicting means used to accomplish the mutually contradictory goals of rehabilitation and punishment. One Hundred Twenty-sixth Annual Report -- 1970, pp. 13-14.

Immediately after the Attica rebellion was quashed, a state court judge appointed a five-man panel to ensure that the rights of inmates would be safeguarded until the prison could return to normal. The general secretary of the Association, Donald Goff, was appointed to the panel. He and the other members spent the better part of the next sixty days either at Attica or traveling to other state prisons to interview inmates who had been transferred from Attica after the suppression.

The panel "was instrumental in speeding the process of the return of the institution to normal, including

  • reducing the number of inmates held in each cell and regularizing the feeding procedures;
  • protecting the rights of inmates being questioned by the Attorney General's Office investigating the rebellion;
  • arranging for a medical check of all inmates by non-institutional physicians;
  • and convincing the Attorney General and the Governor's Office that the U.S. Attorney General should be requested to conduct the investigation of the retaking of the institution.

Attica 1971: inmates being stripsearched just after the riot was ended by force.

Drawing on its 1844 mandate to seek "the amelioration of the conditions of prisoners" and "the improvement of prison discipline and the government of prisons," the Association's first recommendation to the Legislature in its 1971 annual report was the formation of an independent, objective, impartial nongovernmental ombudsman program to "redress the just grievances of inmates, rectify abuses of the correctional system itself and establish a trusted means of communication directly from the inmate population to the top administration." . . . .

The Association proceeded to obtain funding to conduct a feasibility study on how an ombudsman program might work. By late 1972 the Association had received the endorsement of the corrections department to begin a pilot ombudsman program at the women's prison at Bedford Hills, and a staff member began the program. "Almost immediately" the governor's office directed the corrections department to withdraw its approval for that project.

The Association's 1972 report contained as an appendix a lengthy study: "The Feasibility of a Correctional Ombudsman."

The Association's efforts to establish a pilot ombudsman program conflicted with a subsequent recommendation by the Select Committee on Correctional Institutions and Programs that the commissioner of corrections serve in the ombudsman function.

The Association noted that one of the problems with that proposal was the need for a constitutional amendment in order to make that an impartial position, rather than subservient to the agency it would be monitoring.

One Hundred Twenty-eighth Annual
Report-- 1972, pp. 4 & 77-110.

Stymied in these efforts, the Association fell back on its visitation authority from 1846 to launch an intensive schedule of inspecting prisons throughout New York City and the state.

The Association's first priority was the Manhattan House of Detention, or the Tombs. As notorious as its predecessor prisons on the same site, the Tombs was the scene of riots in 1970 and 1971. The Association's visits led to the conclusion that the physical plant [built in the 1930s] was beyond renovation, that there was a lack of diversification in security and program, and that, in general, intolerable living conditions existed. As a result, the recommendation of the Association was that the institution should be vacated as soon as possible and discarded as a detention or confinement facility of any kind.

In July 1974 the Association began a series of fact-finding visits to the ten prison facilities under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Corrections. Among the problems addressed were the need for contact visits, availability of rules in Spanish, the inefficiency of bringing Rikers Island inmates to court because of its remoteness, and the risks caused by severe overcrowding.

The Aftermath of Attica

By 1973 the Association had concluded that "imprisonment, in the most part, constitutes the least effective method" for ensuring public safety and restoring offenders to the community. "At best, imprisonment protects the community for limited periods of time. At worst, imprisonment all too often maintains and strengthens criminal life styles." . . .

The Association noted that "Attica taught us at a great cost in lives, dollars and human dignity that an uninformed, uninvolved and, consequently, inactive public soon loses control of its governmental agencies and their performance."

In the aftermath of Attica, Governor Rockefeller proposed a series of harsh and retributive laws:

  • the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which mandated severe prison sentences (ranging from fifteen years to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole) for certain drug addicts and drug-related crimes, and
  • the Second Felony Offender Law, which mandated a prison term for any person convicted of a second felony and eliminated any judicial discretion to consider the personal history of the offender or the circumstances of the crime.

Regarding these proposals "as a sop to public concern," the Association objected to them on the grounds that there "is no stable relationship between increased punishment and a lower crime rate. On the contrary ... it is the certainty and swiftness of the punishment rather than its severity that deters crime." Nonetheless, these laws were enacted.

Twenty-two years later, in a decision upholding the mandatory sentencing requirements of those drug laws, the New York State Court of Appeals noted that "the experience of the past two decades has clearly vindicated the doubts Chief Judge Breitel expressed ... on the wisdom of the draconian drug sentencing laws." However, the court stated that the abolition or reform of those laws was up to the Legislature, not the courts.

In 1978 the Legislature expanded the scope of the state's already severe criminal code by enacting the Violent Felony Offender Law, which established mandatory prison terms for virtually all first-time offenders convicted of a violent crime. The only felonies not covered by this law are the most minor: forgery, grand larceny, and burglary in the third degree.

The mandatory sentencing laws -- adopted as a political reaction to the public outcry against crime -- were a catalyst in leading the Association to abandon the key criminal justice reforms that it had championed over a century before. In 1978 the Association concluded that the framework of indeterminate sentencing and the parole board, which it had pioneered with the establishment of the Elmira Reformatory laws in 1870 had failed "to fulfill its idealistic goals" and should be replaced with determinate sentences.

The original concept of indeterminate sentences was that they would foster rehabilitation of the inmate and that future criminal behavior could be predicted and dealt with through the mechanism of parole. Sadly, "social science evidence fails to support these assumptions." Instead, the broad discretionary authority inherent in the indeterminate sentencing scheme "resulted in gross sentencing disparity," leaving tremendous power in the hands of "a somewhat invisible parole board" to rectify the disparities."

One final aftermath of Attica was the dramatic increase in the Association's direct service work with inmates and their families. While it had been quietly performing this function since the inception of the Association, the riots at Attica and Rikers Island pointed to the need for a formal program of civil legal services for poor inmates and their families. In 1971 the Association launched its Civil Legal Services Bureau with funding from private sources, city and state grants, and its own endowment funds.

The program grew rapidly, but unfortunately New York City's financial crisis in the years 1974-1976 resulted in serious cash flow problems for the program, as the city was unable to meet its commitments to the Association. Rather than curtail the program, the Association dipped further into its endowment funds; by 1975 the Association itself was in dire financial straits, operating with a sizable deficit.

Changes in the leadership and board of directors of the Association were undertaken in an effort to stabilize the deficit. By 1979 it was dramatically reduced, and the Association focused its attention on a study that revealed what taxpayers actually paid for the post-conviction stages of the criminal justice system -- jails, parole, and probation. The price tag was a staggering $2.8 billion, or "10 percent of all state and local government spending in New York."

Notwithstanding the fact that most prisoners "are uneducated, unskilled, unemployed, and drug-addicted before coming to prison, only 10 percent of the total cost [of operating the prison system] is spent on programs to alleviate these handicaps." Moreover, the Association noted the lack of any centralized method of monitoring spending by criminal justice agencies, and suggested that "informed judgments about the policies of these agencies are not possible without regular and accurate breakdowns of revenues and expenses."

The History of the Correctional Association of New York
Report cover

A Citizen Crusade
For Prison Reform

NYCHS is honored to be permitted to post this excerpts presentation. For more on CANY, visit its web site; write it at 135 E.15th St., NY NY 10003 or call (212) 254-5700.
NYCHS logo

A Citizens Crusade for Prison Reform was published and copyrighted in 1994 by the Correctional Association of NY that retains all rights.

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