State corrections officers hope double-bunking law slows closures
Hochul signs law to prohibit practice at state correctional facilities
Top corrections officers are hopeful a new law that prohibits double-bunked housing in state prisons will help slow pending prison closures and reduce record-high numbers of violent attacks on staff.
Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul signed a bill sponsored by Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, and Sen. Luis Seplveda, D-Bronx, late Wednesday that prohibits the practice of double bunking within the state’s 50 correctional facilities.
Double bunking increases the number of inmates housed in a medium-security dormitory typically designed to accommodate up to 50 incarcerated people to between 60 and 90 men or women — impacting proper supervision and inmate and officer safety.
“Double-bunking is an outdated and dangerous practice that has absolutely no place in our current prison system,” Jones said Thursday in a statement. “For 20 years, I worked as a corrections officer and experienced firsthand the stress and painstaking hard work this job entails.”
Jones has worked to end double bunking in medium-security dormitories at correctional facilities since he was elected, he said.
“It’s critical that we prioritize their safety and well-being, as well as that of inmates and other prison staff, and do everything we can to ensure our correctional facilities are as safe as possible,” the assemblyman said. “So many people across the north country will be safer at their jobs now that double bunking is ending in medium-secured facilities, and I am proud that my bill was finally passed and signed by the governor.”
Officials with the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the state’s 18,000 corrections officers, said Thursday they hope the law will help spread incarcerated people across facilities and slow future closures of medium- and minimum-security facilities.
“We’re hoping a well spaced-out inmate population will be a much safer model and safer working conditions where I don’t think you’d have to close any facility,” NYSCOPBA President Michael B. Powers said Thursday. “We deem this as quite a victory, and we’re hopeful, quite frankly.”
“Instead of a 60 to 1 (inmate to officer) ratio in a housing unit, we can decrease that to 30 or 33 in each housing unit and create a much safer rehabilitation model and create safer working conditions for our members,” he said. “We’re grateful for Gov. Hochul for signing this into law. We appreciate our dialogue with her as of late.”
Last week, Hochul confirmed she will follow her predecessor’s plans and announce the closure of multiple facilities this year. Language in the Legislature’s adopted 2021-22 state budget permits the governor to permanently close facilities with a 90-day notice through the end of March 2022, meaning the closures must be announced by Dec. 31.
“What I found is that there are many facilities, particularly upstate, that are only half full,” she said Oct. 27. “We will be looking at a scaling-down initiative.”
Officials with the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and Hochul’s office refused Thursday to answer multiple questions about which prisons are targeted to be closed, and when.
Powers and other union members are kept in the dark about future closings. Members typically learn of facility closings when DOCCS makes a public announcement.
DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey responded with an identical statement the department has provided to media outlets across the state about potential closures since June about the department carefully reviewing operations at its 50 correctional facilities for possible closure.
“This review is based on a variety of factors, including but not limited to physical infrastructure, program offerings, facility security level, specialized medical and mental health services, other facilities in the area to minimize the impact to staff, potential reuse options and areas of the state where prior closures have occurred in order to minimize the impact to communities,” Mailey said.
The department will offer impacted employees voluntary transfer or priority employment at other facilities and state agencies following a closure, and does not anticipate related layoffs.
Hochul’s office referred additional questions to DOCCS statements.
Fourteen of the 20 state prisons and correction facilities closed over the last decade have been upstate, or north of Dutchess County.
Additional closures were expected to be announced in June under former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo with the goal to shutter facilities by Labor Day, but an announcement never came. Cuomo resigned Aug. 23.
The closing of facilities will mean fewer available medium-security beds. Union reps hope the new law will prevent the department from shuttering more facilities, or at least delay closures until next year.
Violent crime spiked in cities across the state and nation in 2020 and 2021, which union members said could cause the prison population to increase.
“They could bring back the double-bunking scenario, but this law statutorily says they can’t do it,” Powers said of the need for officials to take their time in closing any facility.
Needing additional facilities to remain open to accommodate an increasing number of incarcerated people is not a concern for the department as officials weigh additional prison closures.
“Most of the double bunks have already been taken down and the incarcerated population continues to decline,” Mailey said.
While floating additional prison closures last week, Hochul also noted a need to ease the burden on the local economy and job loss when a state prison permanently shutters.
“The governor acknowledges the violence in our correction facilities and recognizes the need for change,” Powers said. “We’re a player in the room, and we were not even a player in the room (under Cuomo). We hope to be in this administration, or at least a voice to be heard.”
“The governor sees it, these legislators don’t,” he added.
Ending a prison housing era
Incarcerated people are housed in dorm settings or cells designed for up to two individuals.
DOCCS authorized the double bunking of incarcerated New Yorkers in the 1980s as the state prison population swelled to its peak of 72,773 people in 1999.
The total incarcerated population in state correctional facilities is 31,501 people as of Thursday, including a reduction of more than 12,700 people since Jan. 1, 2020, and the lowest incarcerated population since 1984.
The population has declined 56% since the department high in 1999.
“The safety and security of staff and the incarcerated population in our correctional facilities is a top priority for the department,” Mailey said. “As a result of the drastic decline in the incarcerated population, in 2020, DOCCS removed approximately 3,000 top bunks from medium-security facilities — making all those dormitories 50-person maximum capacity and allowing for greater social distancing.”
The practice was also largely eliminated from state prisons last year to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“The department maintained a very small number of double bunks in certain medium-security facilities,” Mailey said. “Over the next 90 days, DOCCS will evaluate these bunks and anticipates minimal impact.”
The department would not say which facilities have double bunks or provide exact numbers of the remaining beds.
“As noted above, a very small number of double bunks remain and the department anticipates minimal impact in following the law,” Mailey said.
A violent impact
Violent incidents within prison facilities against staffers and other inmates continue to hit historic levels. Officials hope prohibiting double bunking will be a step to ease the attacks.
DOCCS reports 939 attacks from incarcerated people on prison staff in 2021 as of Monday — on pace to meet or surpass 1,047 attacks in 2020, an all-time high.
Violent attacks between incarcerated people are also on the rise, with 1,204 reported incidents in 2020.
“There is no consequence for violent activity in prisons anymore,” Powers said.
The department reported 99 attacks on staff statewide within the last month.
“The safety and well-being of our staff and incarcerated individuals is our top priority,” Mailey said. “The department has zero tolerance for violence within our facilities and anyone engaged in misconduct will be disciplined. If warranted, incidents will be referred for outside prosecution.”
Tuesday’s elections showed strong support for Republicans — potentially indicating a “red wave” in next year’s 2022 midterm races, which union officials said they hope will push public support away from progressive criminal justice reforms.
The law prohibiting double-bunking is a rare criminal justice reform that appeases both the right and left.
Hochul, a centrist Democrat running for reelection in 2022, said during a webinar Thursday she will support moderate criminal justice reforms going forward, but stressed the need to support law enforcement and keep police fully funded.
“I am hard-wired to know my responsibility as governor is to doing everything I can to work with our local governments whether the city of New York, the city of Buffalo or the city of Watertown to protect the people in their homes and on the streets as they head to their businesses,” she said. “Otherwise, we will not have the full recovery we need.”
Union members will push lawmakers to pass legislation next session to conduct a study on the violence in state correctional facilities. Legislation to conduct the study has failed for several years, and stalled in the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee this session.
DOCCS continues to struggle to attract and retain corrections staff, leading to shortages and officers working double or triple shifts.