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Katal Op-ed in the NY Daily News: NYS must boost its prison watchdog

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NY Daily News

By Yonah Zeitz

6/2/2024

With time running out in the 2024 New York State legislative session, lawmakers in Albany should act to address the crisis on Rikers and other jails across the state. New Yorkers, particularly those who have been incarcerated and their loved ones — like many of our members at the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice — are deeply concerned about the dire conditions and dysfunction in jails from Buffalo and the Southern Tier to New York City and Long Island.

Every week, tens of thousands of New Yorkers are cycling through local jails across the state. The New York State Commission of Correction (SCOC) has the constitutional obligation and legal authority to ensure that local jails are “safe, stable, and humane.”

The SCOC has wide-ranging power to hold jails and prisons in compliance, including through conducting inspections, obtaining information from facility staff, examining correctional department documentation and medical records, and issuing subpoenas. (In New York, like most states, jails and prisons are different.) The SCOC can even shut down facilities found to be out of compliance in maintaining a safe environment for incarcerated people.

But for decades the SCOC has failed to fulfill its mandate. In the 1990s, due to funding and staff reductions, the commission stopped its longstanding practice of regularly inspecting prisons and drastically limited its oversight role.

And a recent New York Focus review of more than 200 SCOC jail inspection reports from 2018 to 2023 found that major problems at jails across the state — including Onondaga, Rockland, and Dutchess counties — drag on for years, unresolved. This has left incarcerated people to suffer under horrific, dangerous, and often deadly conditions.

Take one glaring example from New York City. In 2018, the SCOC released a report about the state’s worst jails — and Rikers Island Jail Complex topped the list, with severe leadership failures, a host of regulatory violations, dilapidated facilities, and flagrantly unsafe conditions. The commission concluded that “it is now time for the Commission to examine steps to expeditiously close Rikers and to ensure that the constitutional rights of [incarcerated people] and staff are protected.”

Since issuing its 2018 report, the SCOC has taken little if any action on its findings and recommendations about Rikers. Yet, one shocking news report after another shows the conditions in city jails have continued to deteriorate, and dozens and dozens of people — most of whom were incarcerated pretrial — have died. The violence and dysfunction on Rikers have gotten so bad that a federal judge is considering drastic legal action — appointing an independent receiver to take control over the jail complex.

If the SCOC were functioning properly, perhaps we wouldn’t be witnessing an ongoing disaster on Rikers and other jails across the state. Conditions might be improved, lives could be saved. Perhaps the intervention of federal courts on Rikers would be unnecessary.

Lawmakers in Albany are finally taking action to get the SCOC back on track to fulfill its mandate. State Sen. Julia Salazar, chair of the Senate’s Crime, Crime Victims, and Correction Committee, and Assemblymember Emily Gallagher have cosponsored legislation (S5877/A5709) to expand the number of commissioners on the SCOC from three to nine.

The proposal would also codify how members are confirmed. The governor would retain three choices, and the Senate and Assembly would each have two selections. Additionally, two commissioners would be appointed by the Correctional Association of New York — a state watchdog with legal authority to provide independent monitoring and oversight of state prisons, but not county jails.

Perhaps more important, under this bill, the appointments would guarantee diversity and experience, requiring the appointment of commissioners who have backgrounds in public health, behavioral health care, indigent legal defense, prisoners’ rights litigation, as well as people who were once incarcerated. This would strengthen the SCOC and enhance its ability to fulfill its constitutional mandate.

Given the extraordinary problems and life-threatening conditions found in local jails throughout the state, a functioning, effective state Commission on Correction is needed now more than ever.

The bill has already passed through key correction committees in both the Senate and Assembly, but has yet to achieve final passage. With only a few days left in this year’s legislative session, the Legislature must act now and swiftly pass this much-needed reform to the state Commission of Correction, and deliver it to the governor’s desk for signature. Lives hang in the balance.

Yonah Zeitz is the New York advocacy director at the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice.

 

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