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.
NYCHS logo

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

[Shock incarceration inmates.]

The Correctional Association Today

Mandatory sentencing schemes such as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the Second Felony Offender Law, and the Violent Felony Offender Law -- which were conceived in an effort to reduce crime -- soon became the primary cause of an exponential growth in New York State's prison population. Reflecting a nationwide trend, New York experienced the greatest expansion of the use of incarceration in its history. From a census of 12,500 inmates in 1973 (when mandatory sentencing laws first began to be enacted), the prison population more than doubled to 28,500 inmates in 1983, and then more than doubled again to over 66,000 inmates in 1994.

New York City's prison population has grown from 7,000 in 1980 to approximately 19,000 in 1993. Most of this increase represents pretrial detainees, who make up roughly 70 percent of the city's inmate population.

The Association's report on this issue concluded that "the increase in pre-trial prisoners is mainly caused by processing delays in NYC's courts which are among the slowest in the nation," at 52 days as compared to "25-30 days in other big city jails."

The primary culprit in these delays is a major defect in the discovery process, whereby prosecutors are not required to turn over information to the defense "until the time of trial, so the defense often files routine motion procedures to gain access to these materials, resulting in repeated adjournments and delays."

The Association proposed the adoption of "a policy of early, complete, and open discovery." According to its computations, "a 20% reduction [in the average length of stay] would eliminate the need for 5,000 to 7,000 jail spaces, would resolve current crowding problems and would result in savings to the City of hundreds of millions of dollars in jail operating funds."

-- [From the] Newsletter of the Gateway Alliance, June 1993, p. 2. The name Gateway Alliance was used for a brief period to identify joint public education and development efforts of the Correctional Association and its [then] sister organization, the Osborne Association.

Nearly one-half of that prison population is serving time for first felony convictions, while approximately 60 percent of the offenders sent to prison on any given year were convicted of nonviolent crimes -- most of them caught in the web of mandatory sentences dictated by the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Second Felony Offender Law.

In 1982 the Association undertook a project to examine the reasons for the more than twofold increase in the state's prison population from 1971 through 1981. By correlating and analyzing statistics reported by the FBI and various state agencies on the crime rate, felony arrests, and prison terms, the report demonstrated that the mandatory sentencing laws were a disproportionate cause of the rapid increase in prison population.

This conclusion was inescapable since the prison population was growing at virtually twice the rate of the increase in the crime rate and felony arrest rate. While the state's mandatory sentencing laws have proven efficient in ensuring that convicted felons spend time in jail, the public policy rationale that motivated their passage -- removing dangerous criminals from the streets, thereby helping to reduce the crime rate -- has not been borne out. In fact "the crime rate is much higher and the drug problem much worse" than when these laws were enacted.

Moreover, in an era of huge and chronic budget deficits the state and city have chosen the most expensive alternative for accommodating the burgeoning population of inmates being sentenced by the courts: construction of new prisons at extraordinary financial cost. Including debt charges the price of a new prison cell is now a staggering $293,000.

It is ironic that the state agency providing financing for much of the new prison construction is the Urban Development Corporation, which was conceived by Governor Rockefeller in 1968 as a memorial tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., that would create housing for poor people.

Current Guiding Principles:
Emphasizing the Larger Social Context

Since the start of the 1980s the Association's guiding principles have been to use its standing as an independent citizen group to address politically controversial issues and to seek positive reforms; to be an advocate of the interests of inmates who are particularly disadvantaged, such as women, the mentally handicapped, and people with AIDS; and to channel the public policy debate on prison and criminal justice issues into the larger context of social issues, recognizing that the criminal justice system is an inadequate surrogate for curing society's larger ills.

In the midst of the explosion in New York's prison population, the state's corrections commissioner [Thomas A. Coughlin] acknowledged that "the Department is no longer engaged in rehabilitation programming efforts; but rather it is forced to warehouse people and concentrate only on finding the next cell." In response to the greatly expanded use of prisons, the Association intensified its efforts to educate the public and policy makers about the criminal justice implications that are an inevitable, but unfortunate, outgrowth of that trend.

Public Education Activities

The Association has issued a wide array of reports -- often dealing with complex and controversial issues -- in an effort to draw attention to politically difficult matters, thereby helping to shape the public debate on criminal justice concerns and to foster meaningful changes in criminal justice policy and practice. These reports, which have been generally well received by the media and government representatives, include the following:

Cellblock at Rikers Island,
circa 1940.

  • New York City Jail Crisis: Causes, Costs and Solutions (1984) showed through nationwide experience that governments cannot build their way out of overcrowding problems and that the annual cost of keeping an inmate in the city's jails exceeded $40,000.

  • Doing Idle Time: An Investigation of Inmate Idleness in New York's Prisons and Recommendations for Change (1984) was undertaken after the 1983 inmate takeover of Sing Sing Prison. It detailed the pervasive problem of inmate idleness and recommended specific measures to reduce it substantially

  • Women Prisoners at Bayview: A Neglected Population (1985) closely examined the conditions of confinement at Bayview Correctional Facility and offered recommendations for improvements.

  • The Road Not Taken: Cost-Effective Alternatives to Prison for Non-Violent Offenders in New York State (1986) described how the state could save $750 million to $1 billion in prison construction costs plus $60 million in annual operating costs by implementing a program of alternative penalties.

  • Do They Belong in Prison? The Impact of New York's Mandatory Sentencing Laws on the Administration of Justice (1986) contained twenty-one case histories of persons serving unnecessary or excessive prison terms because of New York's mandatory sentencing laws.

  • State of the Prisons: Conditions Inside the Walls - A Comprehensive Study of Conditions of Confinement in New York State Prisons (1986) surveyed problems within correctional facilities throughout the state system. For the first time the issue of AIDS in prison was placed in the public spotlight, and numerous reforms were proposed to address the difficulties described in the report.

  • The Mentally Impaired in New York's Prisons: Problems and Solutions (1987) reviewed the problems mentally ill inmates cause for themselves and others within the system and proposed more appropriate treatment responses.

  • AIDS in Prison: A Crisis in New York State Corrections (1988) was the first comprehensive examination of AIDS within a state prison system and presented a range of practical responses to this terrible problem.

  • Anti-Crime Strategies at a Time of Fiscal Constraint (1990) outlined a more cost-effective means of relieving prison overcrowding and fighting crime than the ineffective approach taken for the past generation, namely, expensive new prison construction.

  • Not Simply a Matter of Words: Academic & Vocational Programs for Latino Inmates in New York State Prisons (1992) examined how well the state's correctional system was providing programs and activities for this disenfranchised constituency. But for a few isolated exceptions, academic and vocational programs for Latinos were found to be either inaccessible or ineffective.

  • Injustice Will Be Done: Women Couriers and the Rockefeller Drug Laws (1992) graphically detailed the maltreatment by the criminal justice system of barely culpable female "drug mules." As part of its public education efforts the Association also produced two videos, entitled

    Drug Mules and We Are Not Who You Think We Are, which sought to dispel stereotypical images of female inmates and suggested alternative measures for dealing with the social and economic problems of women offenders.

  • Crisis in the Court Pens: A Report of the Visiting Committee of the Correctional Association of New York (1993) described the intolerable and inhumane conditions in New York City's court holding facilities and the steps taken by the Association's Visiting Committee to improve matters.

  • Living in a Small Town: AIDS/HIV Prevention and Transmission in Prisons and Jails (1994) described high-risk behavior leading to the spread of AIDS in prison and recommended measures for preventing it.

  • Barriers to AIDS-Related Clinical Threats: An Ethical and Clinical Imperative (1994) showed how and why prisoners with AIDS should have access to experimental treatment programs.

The Visiting Committee

Through the work of the Visiting Committee the Association has reviewed conditions at Attica, exposed the decrepit state of the court holding pens in New York City, and advocated an expansion of the shock incarceration program. Much like the probing and impartial investigative visits by the Association's founders, the activities of the current-day Visiting Committee have focused on many substantive issues and led to improvements in significant aspects of New York's criminal justice system.

Attica 1982:
In 1982 the Association undertook a review of how large correctional institutions were operated, using Attica as a representative institution. Echoing the sentiments of the McKay Commission, which in 1972 studied the causes of the uprising, the Association's report confirmed that "Attica is every prison; and every prison is Attica."

Attica Prison, circa 1947.

Just before the 1971 uprising, Attica's prisoner population stood at 2,251 inmates; by 1982 the explosion in the inmate population had again driven it to a dangerous high at 2,175 -- despite an announcement by Governor Hugh Carey that in order to ensure safety a "firm limit" of 1,700 prisoners would apply to Attica.

The Association's report noted that owing to severe overcrowding, violence was up significantly, prisoner movement was drastically restricted, idle prisoners (who were confined to their cells for twenty-three hours a day) increased to 25 percent of the population, medical care suffered from shortages of staff and adequate facilities, and food service became unsanitary and rushed." In short, many of the conditions cited by the McKay Commission as factors in triggering the uprising had re-emerged ten years later.

The Association's report also examined the outcome of the reforms instituted in the aftermath of the Attica uprising. Two reforms -- allowing prisoners to elect representatives to discuss concerns with the prison administration, and the formation of an inmate grievance program -- were abject failures.

In the case of the inmate liaison committee, the breakdown was because of the lack of authority by inmate representatives and the lack of respect by the prison administration, which led to apathy by inmates who might run for election. Finally, the superintendent "canceled the last election and selected anyone who nominated himself to serve."

Other problem areas included the lack of recreation facilities and educational programs, the difficulties in having visits from family members, and the absence of court sessions at the prison.

This last issue meant that "for the prisoner ... a court appearance has become a depressing and degrading occasion. All of the prisoners scheduled to appear are brought to the [Wyoming County] courthouse early in the morning and are kept manacled and shackled throughout the day, in the same open 'pen' area, until their return in the afternoon or evening."

Attica 1982 Report, pp. 5 - 13.

Grievance committees were mandated by law after the Attica uprising to "fairly, simply and expeditiously" handle inmate complaints. Rather than reduce conflict, however, the Association's report found that the grievance procedure had become another source of prisoner frustration. Many common complaints could not be submitted to the grievance mechanism because they were supposed to be dealt with through the pre-existing appeals procedures. And in a Kafkaesque turn of events, the grievance process itself soon became mired in "a complex series of steps and appeals." Any issue of immediate concern such as "denial of showers, or food and clothing missing from a package, which should be addressed quickly if conflicts are to be resolved, became a six-month process with a life of its own."

The sorry state of affairs at Attica was attributed to the poor degree of outside monitoring of the institution . . . .

Similar to the situation at Sing Sing one hundred years before, when the steady turnover of wardens led to cycles of reform and repression, the corrections department had suffered from "five different commissioners [since the beginning of the 1970s], each with his own philosophy." Consequently the employees at Attica "don't worry much about new policies or requirements from Albany, because if we wait a little longer the people involved will be gone."

Court Holding Pens:
Located in dark basements of New York City's criminal court buildings, the court holding pens contain "recently arrested people waiting to see an arraignment judge and defendants brought from the City's jails for scheduled court dates." In 1989 the Association began to pay regular visits to these facilities, noting the extreme overcrowding, broken toilets and sinks, the absence of any medical care, inadequate and often missed meals, and the lengthy periods (sometimes more than seventy-two hours) that a person could disappear into the prearraignment system without the ability even to make a phone call.

The lack of medical care in the court holding pens epitomized an acute problem in ensuring humane treatment by the criminal justice system. People with diabetes were found to be locked in, undiagnosed and unaided. People with tuberculosis were mixed in with the others awaiting arraignment -- an open invitation to exacerbate an already serious public health problem. People with mental problems were left unattended, often in an isolation cell. These conditions were reminiscent of the scenes described 150 years ago at Sing Sing Prison and Blackwells Island, when the Association first began to visit the state's prisons.

In 1993 the Association produced a report entitled Crisis in the Court Pens, which depicted these problems in detail and described the Visiting Committee's strategic responses. Unlike the city's jails, the court pens lacked any operating standards for such basic matters as cell capacity, appropriate food to be served, health care, and access to family, friends, and lawyers. Owing to the absence of standards, the Association noted that it was impossible to hold government agencies accountable for the deplorable conditions in the court holding pens.

The Association undertook to remedy the problems in the court holding pens through periodic visits to gather information and establish credibility; numerous meetings with New York City officials with authority to institute needed reforms; outreach to potential allies who could influence the relevant policy-making process; and public education efforts aimed at informing specific constituencies and the general public about the Association's concerns.

"The Correctional Association's strategy was, and continues to be, based on the determination that the more constituencies we involve in the issue, the more ways we spotlight the problem, and the more tactics we use to promote practical reforms, the greater chance we have for attaining the urgently needed improvements."

In the arena of prison monitoring by citizen organizations, the Association's approach to the deplorable situation in the court holding pens has been noteworthy for the intensity of its effort and the resultant successes. The following are among the improvements instituted by New York City as a result of the activities of the Visiting Committee and others:

  • establishing a medical screening pilot program in Manhattan's central booking facility -- representing the first time New York has provided even the semblance of a systematic approach to health care in the arrest-to-arraignment process;
  • greatly enhancing general conditions of confinement in the Manhattan prearraignment areas;
  • assigning a full-time maintenance person in each borough and establishing a training program for staff and administrative personnel;
  • installing accessible phones in the prearraignment court pen areas, so that detainees can make contact with families and attorneys; and
  • providing milk at mealtimes for all female inmates and floor mats for women prisoners in an effort to meet the minimal needs of pregnant women detainees.

Shock Incarceration:
A noteworthy bright spot to emerge from the vastly enlarged state prison system in the past decade is the shock incarceration program, often referred to as "boot camp" by the media. New York opened its first such facility in 1987; now both the state and New York City have shock incarceration programs. The state program runs for six months and offers mainly first-time offenders the inducement of reduced prison time if they successfully complete it, while the city program is for sixty days and in large measure treats parole violators.

The Association has taken the position that the concept of shock incarceration is "an important effort to develop constructive and humane approaches to offender rehabilitation." The Association's position -- that shock incarceration programs should be "expanded, replicated and enhanced" -- is based on numerous and continuing visits to the facilities and the "after-shock" postrelease programs run by the parole department.

In sharp contrast to most prisons today, shock incarceration facilities are "safe, drug-free and well-run institutions." It is important that "their objective is not to warehouse prisoners ... but to help inmates build new lives" through remedial education, alcohol and substance abuse treatment programs, and prerelease guidance efforts." Most significantly, the Association found the staff in these facilities to be well trained, highly motivated, and intensely involved in guiding, cajoling, disciplining, and caring for every inmate's rehabilitation. The contrast between typical correctional officers and the "boot camp" drill instructors is both stark and refreshing.

The Association's support for shock incarceration, through the publication of a favorable report in 1991, lobbying trips to the state capitol, and advocacy with media representatives, helped lead to the implementation of positive reforms. For example, the state recently broadened the eligibility criteria for the program to include older and more serious offenders and expanded its capacity to 3,000 prisoners on an annual basis.

The conundrum of the criminal justice system is that even the most motivated graduates of shock incarceration can end up back in prison. This failure is not a mystery, however, when one considers that many are homeless upon release, or lack a supportive family network, or do not have the skills necessary to obtain meaningful employment. . . . In fact, the very element of the shock incarceration program that makes it a success -- a highly structured and supportive environment -- can often lead to a stressful and difficult re-entry once an inmate is released back into a poor, drug-infested environment.

Prison Mental Hygiene Project

Beginning in 1985 the Association undertook a comprehensive study of problems in the service delivery system for mentally handicapped state prison inmates. This group includes the mentally ill, mentally retarded, and learning disabled. The Association's first report, issued in 1987, found that

  • important mental health programs, such as psychiatric satellite units and intermediate care programs, required major expansion;
  • that there were far too few Spanish-speaking clinicians, in view of the fact that Latinos comprised over 25 percent of the prison population;
  • that inmates needed screening by mental health staff before being put into disciplinary segregation, because the severe isolation of those units is often devastating to prisoners with psychiatric problems;
  • and that the parole department's ability to supervise and service mentally handicapped parolees was impeded by gaps in information and community resources.

Thanks to these intense advocacy efforts, the mental hygiene project has fostered a number of important improvements. The changes include the opening of a unit for fifty-two mentally retarded inmates at the Wende Correctional Facility and an agreement to provide budgetary authorization for dramatic expansion of the intermediate care programs, which afford long-term care for mentally ill prisoners.

A follow-up report issued in 1989, entitled Insane and In Jail: The Need for Treatment Options for the Mentally Ill in New York's County Jails, set forth a detailed study of the management of mentally ill offenders in Monroe and Westchester counties.

The report showed that mentally impaired people are often stereotyped as harmless vagrants; in fact, many are seriously ill but trapped in an endless cycle of arrest, incarceration, and release without treatment. The county jail programs studied by the Association had established special units to provide services and to facilitate placement of mentally ill offenders in alternative programs; both had also established strong links between the local criminal justice and mental health agencies.

However, the explosion in drug-related arrests had badly strained the counties' resources, jeopardizing the future of those programs. The Association urged that these trends be reversed for the sake of the inmates and the community at large: after all, jail is too "bizarre and unnatural an environment" for the mentally ill offender. . . .

Imprisoned Generation

In 1990 the Association addressed one of the most sensitive criminal justice issues confronting society: the racial composition of the prison population. In conjunction with the New York State Coalition for Criminal Justice, the Association issued a report entitled Imprisoned Generation: Young Men Under Criminal Justice Custody in New York State. . . .

Collecting state-wide data on arrests, jail and prison sentences, and parolee demographics, the report included the following startling findings:

  • Young African-American men were over twenty-three times more likely to be locked up in New York State than young white men. At any given time nearly 25 percent of the young African-American men in the state were under the control of the criminal justice system. That was more than twice the number of all African-American men enrolled as full-time college students in the state.
  • Young Latino men were eleven times more likely to be incarcerated in New York State than young white men. At any given time approximately 12 percent of the young Latino men in the state were under some form of criminal justice custody, more than all Latinos enrolled as full-time college students in the state.
  • By contrast, less than 3 percent of the young white men in New York State were under some form of criminal justice custody at any given time. This number represented less than 20 percent of the white males enrolled as full-time college students in the state.
  • New York State's prison population grew from 12,500 inmates in 1973 to more than 54,000 in 1990, 82 percent of the inmates being African-American or Latino. New York City's jail population grew from 7,000 in 1980 to approximately 20,000 in 1990, approximately 95 percent of the inmates being African-American or Latino.
  • In 1990 a disproportionate percentage of minority youths were in prison (48 percent) as compared to those on misdemeanor probation (16 percent), whereas in the case of young white offenders the statistics were virtually reversed (with only 18 percent in prison and 48 percent on misdemeanor probation).

. . . In a press release accompanying the issuance of its report, Robert Gangi, the executive director of the Association, stated that "locking up thousands of young African-American and Latino men costs billions of dollars every year, yet [this] has not worked to reduce crime. Instead, family and community support programs that would benefit minorities and be more effective fighting crime are short-changed. . . ."

Just before Christmas 1990 Governor Cuomo for the first time granted executive clemency and pardoned one inmate dying Of AIDS. New York City has had a medical release policy since 1987; the state did not adopt such a policy until 1992.

The Association documented the need for such a policy in AIDS in Prison Project Update: A Medical Release Proposal (Correctional Association, November 1990).

Public Policy/AIDS in Prison

In the Association's view, the central public policy premise of the last twenty years, namely, that the criminal justice system -- police, the courts, prisons -- is the most effective tool to fight crime, is flawed. "The criminal justice system is inherently reactive -- it mainly responds after the damage is done, after the crimes are committed. . . ."

Since 1984 the Association has been monitoring the situation of HIV infection and illness in New York's prison system. In 1986 the Association established the AIDS in Prison Project, thereby becoming one of the first organizations to recognize the needs of HIV-positive inmates and people on parole. This project conducted research, monitored and influenced policy, offered a crisis intervention and referral service, and provided a forum for advocacy efforts.

Tuberculosis ward, Clinton Prison, circa 1907.

In 1991 the health crisis caused by new and virulent forms of tuberculosis came to the forefront; the vast majority of the nearly 16,000 inmates (27 percent of the total population) who tested positive for TB were also HIV-positive. The AIDS in Prison Project has recommended a program to the Department of Correctional Services to "assure quality of medical care for inmates with TB, who comprise the largest single group in treatment for the disease in the history of this country."

Stressing compassion for AIDS victims, the Association lobbied for New York to follow other states (and New York City) in adopting a medical release law for terminally ill inmates. In 1992 the New York State Legislature enacted a Medical Parole Law that contained many of the elements of a compassionate release proposal favored by the Association.

The Association's advocacy on behalf of inmates with AIDS has helped in initiating a number of other positive changes in policy and practice, including

  • the establishment of a committee of health department officials and outside physicians which evaluated the medical delivery system at ten prisons that lacked fundamental public health safeguards;

    AIDS in Prison: A Crisis in New York State Corrections (Correctional Association, June 1988) summarized sixteen months of research and investigation by the staff of the Association, including numerous on-site visits.

    The report documented how, despite efforts to provide education and training in individual prisons, there were no system-wide continuous face-to-face AIDS education and training programs for corrections department staff (both uniformed officers and counselors) or inmates.

  • the establishment of the position of chief medical officer by the state corrections department to oversee the entire prison health delivery system;
  • an increase in the number of state prisoners receiving AZT from under 100 to over 1,100;
  • and the formation of an information and referral program to respond to the needs of prisoners and parolees with AIDS and their families and friends.

Two recent legislative proposals by the Association are the repeal of the Second Felony Offender Law, which is responsible for imprisoning at great cost thousands of low-level, nonviolent repeat drug dealers and users who constitute nearly one-third of the state's inmate population; and the amendment of the current practice of applying time off for good behavior to the maximum, rather than the minimum, term of an indeterminate sentence. Since most prisoners are released by the parole board at their earliest eligibility date (the minimum term), and virtually all are released before the maximum term date, the system of accruing time off for good behavior is meaningless in creating an incentive for positive prisoner behavior and attitudes.

The Association noted that applying good time credits to the minimum sentence would result, "according to state officials, in $27.8 million in operating savings in the first year and a capital savings of $130 million; reward prisoners for their good behavior by advancing their parole eligibility dates; and provide prison administrators with an efficient mechanism for regulating behavior and managing prisons."

New York State Criminal Justice Alliance

In 1993 the Association helped establish the New York State Criminal Justice Alliance, a state-wide coalition to develop networks, share information, and work for positive, systemic reform in the criminal justice system. Members of the Alliance include the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, Catholic Charities, the Fortune Society, the Legal Action Center, the Osborne Association, Prisoners' Legal Services, Women's Advocate Ministry, and the Women's Prison Association. The rationale underlying this effort is simple and time-honored: working together in a united fashion increases the likelihood that proposed reforms will receive a fair hearing or, better yet, the political support necessary for implementation.

The Alliance promotes alternatives to incarceration, the expansion of community corrections measures . . . increases in the number of available drug treatment slots . . . elimination or amendment of regressive mandatory sentencing laws . . . [in-prison issues of] health care, brutality . . excessive punitive isolation, . . . inadequate discharge planning . . . sexual harassment . . . concerns of incarcerated mothers . . . imprisonment of battered women. . . . During the spring of 1994 the Alliance sponsored two lobbying days in Albany to promote its agenda. . . .

Emphasizing Preventive Approaches

. . . . The Association has stressed that society must address the central social and economic problems of the day through programs such as:

  • public-works projects that would help maintain parks and repair our decaying infrastructure, while giving job skills to thousands of young men and women;
  • street academies, which have been able to reach the potential dropout population -- a significant matter given the fact that 75 percent of the current inmate population has no high school diploma; and
  • rebuilding inner-city economies so that they can provide viable employment for neighborhood residents -- a pressing need given the huge outflow of manufacturing jobs that has afflicted our metropolitan areas and the emergence of the service industries that require different skills.

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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