The Evolution of the New York Prison System [Part III]
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This opening section of The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica was made available to NYCHS by the DOCS Academy in Albany from among its instructional materials. Its value lies in the sweeping -- albeit critical -- perspective provided on prison development up to that point. Its tone should be evaluated in the context of the terrible 1971 riot that gave rise to the report and to the controversies continuing to this day. In the decades since this encapsulation was first published, great advances have been made in prison inmate services, programs and procedural safeguards.

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Attica sketch

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All persons convicted of felonies and sentenced to terms of more than one year in prison were committed to one of the facilities operated by the state's Department of Correctional Services. Persons convicted of lesser crimes and those held under custody while awaiting trial were confined in local jails, detention houses, and penitentiaries over which the Department of Correctional Services had no jurisdiction. Persons sentenced to probation were supervised by probation officers responsible to the courts and not to the corrections department.

Because of overcrowding in its jails, the City of New York arranged with the state to board approximately three thousand city prisoners in the state prison system in 1971.

At the beginning of 1971, state correction institutions held 12,210 men and 369 women. Approximately 54.5 percent of these persons were black; 33 percept were white; 12 percent were Spanish-speaking; and 0.5 percent were of other ethnic origin. Approximately 54 percent had been committed or convicted for violent crimes, and 56 percent of all inmates had served prison terms before. Ninety-two percent of the system's institutionalized population were housed in correctional facilities, and 8 percent were in hospitals. In addition, there were some 15,000 persons on parole.
Green Haven State Prison.

One of the largest and costliest of such systems in the country: New York's Department of Correctional Services operated twenty-one facilities, including prisons, hospitals, reformatories, work camps, and a narcotics rehabilitation center. The department employed over 7,650 people and its annual budget for fiscal year 1971-72 was more than $100 million.

But the heart of the system remained the maximum security prisons where prisoners were constantly supervised, and locked in their cells at 5:00 or 6:00 pm, [12] and which provided few services other than safekeeping. At the beginning of 1971 approximately 8,250 inmates were housed in the state's six maximum, security institutions -- Auburn, Attica, Clinton, Great Meadow, Green Haven, Ossining (formerly Sing Sing). Except for Ossining, which was being converted into a testing and assignment center, these prisons were located in rural areas isolated from the cities in which the families of most of the inmates resided. Correction officers, often drawn from the surrounding communities, were almost invariably white, and unfamiliar with the 1ife-styles of the inmates committed to their care.

The state's only minimum security facilities for males were work camps restricted to the young able-bodied. Only one narcotics treatment center for offenders was maintained by the state; the medium security facility at Coxsackie, in which the housing requirements, the supervision, and hours of activity were more flexible, was limited to inmates under twenty-one; and the medium security facility at Elmira was restricted to inmates under thirty. There was only one medium security institution -- at Wallkill -- for which adult males of all ages were eligible, and its capacity was limited to five hundred inmates. [13]
Wallkill State Prison.

For 90 percent of the adult males committed to the state the only accommodations available were maximum security prisons. In these institutions, first offenders were mingled with men with long criminal careers; young men, for whom there was no place in the medium or minimum security facilities, were housed with older men; inmates who were convicted of property crimes, such as embezzlement, forgery, and cashing bad checks, were thrown in with inmates who had a history of violent crimes and sexual aberrations; and men serving short sentences were forced to accommodate themselves to a routine designed for men who would spend the rest of their lives in prison. All lived under the same conditions of constant surveillance and long hours in the cells with little to do and almost nothing to learn. All correctional personnel agreed that many inmates could be trusted with greater freedom, and would benefit from the increased programming possible at medium and minimum security institutions. But the state system was saddled with maximum security institutions like Attica, and there were no places available elsewhere. [14]
Inmate Program Advances
Considerable changes have taken place in the state correctional system since this historic overview was published nearly three decades ago. For a balancing perspective reflecting some of the many subsequent positive developments, read the Eastern NY CF centennial book excerpts presentation on this site, particularly the later chapters. Also visit the NYS DOCS web site for a list of research reports available on some of the agency's several inmate programs and services.
In 1965, efforts to convert the New York system from a purely custodian to a rehabilitative basis began when the Governor appointed a Special Committee to study the treatment of criminal offenders in New York State. Co-chairmen of the Special Committee were the then Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Paul D. McGinnis, and the Chairman of the Board of Parole, Russell G. Oswald.

The Committee concluded that too little was known about the actual effects on recidivism of psychiatric and vocational programs, and that it was imperative that a system be created which would test the effect of different programs on the various types of offenders. While recommending that large-scale changes be made in the system only after "evaluation research," the Committee urged the state to abandon:

the ancient concepts of prison and reformatory, and to start working with a now concept: the correctional institution. Only then will we be able to break out of the conceptual bondage that results in what amounts to maximum security for almost all inmates of all ages. [15]

One change recommended by the Special Committee to signify this new commitment became effective on July 8, 1970. On that date the names of all the state's maximum security prisons were changed. There were no more prisons; in their places, instead, stood six maximum security "correctional facilities." The prison wardens became "institution superintendents;" and the former principal keepers became "deputy superintendents." No one's job or essential duties changed, only the title. Certainly the institutions themselves did not change. No walls crumbled, no bars disappeared, no windows opened. No attitudes were revolutionized by the euphemistic name change, and no prejudices were erased by the simple expedient of switching titles.

To a man spending fourteen to sixteen hours a day in a cell being "rehabilitated," and having little useful to do with the rest of his hours, it was scarcely any comfort and no reassurance to learn that he was suddenly "an inmate in a correctional facility," instead of a convict in prison.

Less than six months later, another broad organization change recommended by the Special Committee in 1968 restructured the entire correction system in New York. On January l, 1971, the former Department of Correction and the Division of Parole were merged into the new Department of Correctional Services, centralizing in one agency the custody of convicted felons from the time they entered prison until they were finally released from all state supervision, including parole. However, the structural change meant nothing to the twelve thousand inmates and patients whom the new department was assigned to correct.

To The Evolution of the New York Prison System [Part II]
To The Evolution of the New York Prison System [Part I]
1971 NOTES on The Evolution of the New York Prison System [Part II]

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