DOCCS chief confirmation stalls after Senate questioning
ALBANY — Senators did not vote Wednesday to confirm the acting leader of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision as expected after lawmakers in both major political parties expressed doubt he could successfully lead the department after nine years at the helm.
The nomination of Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci was omitted from Wednesday’s chamber calendar after lawmakers on the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction and Finance committees grilled him for several hours Tuesday about his actions, or lack thereof, to curb increasing violent attacks on prison staff and incarcerated people, available mental health treatment, safety and other issues rampant within the prison system.
“He’s not on the schedule right now,” a spokesperson with the Senate Majority conference said Wednesday.
Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul intends to work with lawmakers to permanently confirm Annucci at a later date.
Several senators Tuesday voted not to recommend Annucci for confirmation, including Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Chair Sen. Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn, Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, Senate Minority Whip Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, Sen. Fred Akshar, R-Endwell, and Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx.
“We have to judge this person based on the actions he has taken, or more importantly, not taken in the last 10 years as acting commissioner,” Rivera said, recalling having similar conversations with Annucci in the early 2010s.
“He is certainly a smart and slick individual, God bless you sir, but I have some serious concerns about actually approving these nominations,” Rivera added of the acting commissioner.
Annucci is the first person nominated by Hochul in her administration to be met with significant pushback by lawmakers in both major political parties.
“Commissioner Annucci is leading key reforms for our administration to expand job training, improve re-entry into the workforce, reduce recidivism and improve community safety,” Hochul’s Press Secretary Hazel Crampton-Hays said in a statement Wednesday. “We continue to engage with the Legislature on these and other critical issues, and look forward to working with them to confirm the commissioner.”
DOCCS referred questions to Hochul’s office.
Senators do not have a timeline for when the nomination could be reconsidered. Lawmakers do not have to act on the nomination within a certain number of days.
Hochul recently nominated Annucci to become DOCCS’ permanent commissioner after he has served as the acting leader of the department for nearly nine years, since May 1, 2013.
“He hit a snag with the members,” said a person in the Capitol, who spoke about Annucci’s likely suspended nomination on the condition of anonymity.
Annucci’s power will not expand if the word “acting” is removed from his title. A minimal pay increase is the only likely personal benefit — saving taxpayers money without senators’ confirmation.
Annucci made $205,534 with the department in 2021, according to payroll records on seethroughny.net.
The acting commissioner defended himself to lawmakers for hours after several expressed doubt in his ability to lead the department.
“If there is some hesitancy, I don’t think you know all the different things I’ve done to push the system forward,” Annucci said during the Finance Committee’s questioning. “I own everything — everything bad that’s ever happened (in prisons since May 2013), I’m accountable for everything bad. This system is extremely large, extremely complex, touches every single county in this state and you’re not going to make everybody happy.”
More than 1,200 incarcerated people have died since Annucci took the helm — or one person dying behind bars about every 2.7 days — compared to 1,130 who were executed in New York between 1608 and 1972, according to an October report on the state’s death toll of mass incarceration by Columbia University’s Center For Justice.
Annucci could not give lawmakers a definitive reason for New York’s in-custody death toll.
“I obviously would not like anybody to die, but we’re all mortal and at some point, something kills everybody,” he said.
No corrections officers or prison staff have died while on duty during Annucci’s tenure as acting commissioner.
An increase in violent attacks on corrections officers, prison staff and incarcerated people was a focus for both groups of lawmakers.
DOCCS reported about 800 assaults on prison staff in 2013, compared to a historic 1,173 against staff last year.
Violent assaults have increased in quantity and severity, including incarcerated people using sharpened instruments or causing significant injuries.
“There’s no one thing at this point in time I can attribute it to,” Annucci said. “This is a complex problem that requires a lot of effort.”
The state had more than 54,000 incarcerated people held in nearly 70 facilities when Annucci became acting commissioner. The state reports about 30,500 incarcerated people to date — a roughly 36% decrease since, but an overall increase by several percentage points in the portion of the population held for a violent crime.
About 73% of incarcerated New Yorkers are serving sentences for violent felony offenses, and the inflated use of illegal drugs also contributes to violent prison incidents.
Tackling a violent problem
DOCCS’ Prison Violence Task Force, comprised of department administrators, union representatives and staff from maximum- and medium-security facilities, met for several hours for the first time last week, examining the assault numbers over the last five years.
The acting commissioner drew parallels between heightened crime rates in cities across the U.S. since the COVID-19 pandemic began and increasing tensions behind the wall.
“COVID-19 clearly was a factor — not having all of the resources … all of the visitation fully operational, all of those things that provide meaningful activities certainly contributed to it,” Annucci said.
The department remains committed to examine all resources to reverse the trend, he added.
The task force meets next April 4.
Annucci promised to give lawmakers in both committees updates on the task force’s findings and progress.
Annucci did not know the number of incarcerated people prosecuted for crimes. He stressed the need to prevent illegal drugs inside state facilities to stem the surge in violence.
He reiterated the department’s relationships with outside prosecutors, and that incarcerated people will face consequences, including additional charges or years added on to their sentence.
Illegal drugs come into correctional facilities through mail, during visits or from staff. Annucci could not give an estimated number of instances in which staff are involved with or arrested in connection with smuggling in drugs or contraband.
“Unfortunately some staff have allowed that to happen,” Annucci said. “They have violated their oath of office and I will take the most pure measures I can if I discover who they are.”
The state has invested millions of dollars in more advanced camera systems, body-worn cameras on officers, deescalation training and other technology to improve prison safety and reduce violent incidents.
Body cameras are not worn by all corrections officers.
Corrections officers at Attica Correctional Facility continue to participate in a pilot program for the body-worn cameras. The Wyoming County facility has the full fixed-camera system, resulting in reduced use-of-force complaints or violent incidents there, Annucci said.
The department will pursue additional body cameras for staff depending on the recommendations of the Prison Violence Task Force.
Salazar said she routinely receives reports of corrections officers responding to incarcerated people with violence or unnecessary force, including beatings.
“The overwhelming majority of staff are dedicated professionals, but for those few who think they can get away with abusing incarcerated individuals, we, too, will take the maximum deterrence,” said Annucci, adding that the department works with U.S. attorneys and New York State Police.
Annucci said the department has a zero-tolerance policy for violence involving staff, inmates or visitors.
The acting commissioner agreed to privately send Sen. Luis Seplveda, D-Bronx, the number of corrections officers or prison staff members fired for using brutal force or violence against an incarcerated person.
Roughly 40% of the state’s incarcerated population is estimated to suffer from mental illness. Incarcerated people with more severe mental health disorders leave facilities more slowly than those without.
The acting commissioner stressed that job of corrections officers and prison staff is difficult, and expressed his support for the rank and file members.
Representatives with the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association declined to comment on lawmakers’ questioning of Annucci or issues with his confirmation.
Annucci was scheduled to testify during a Senate public hearing Thursday on the impact of sexual assault in the prison system.
Annucci grew up in New York City and holds a Juris Doctor from Brooklyn Law School.
He is a former investigator on the Senate Crime Committee and was first employed at DOCCS as deputy counsel in 1984.