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Legislation to Expand and Bolster the State Commission of Correction (S5877), Advances through Senate Crime, Crime Victims, and Correction Committee

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Monday,  May 6, 2024

Contact: Yonah Zeitz, yonah@katalcenter.org • 347-201-2769

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Legislation to Expand and Bolster the State Commission of Correction (S5877), Advances through Senate Crime, Crime Victims, and Correction Committee

With at least 31 People Dead in NYC Jails Under Mayor Adams, the State Commission of Correction Must Be Fixed and Take Action to Address the Life-Threatening Conditions at Rikers Island 

Albany, NY: The New York State Senate Committee on Crime, Crime Victims, and Correction voted to favorably advance S5877 (Salazar), which expands the number of members on the State Commission of Correction and codifies the manner of confirmation of such members to diversify the commission. This is an important step to ensure that the Commission fulfills its constitutional mandate to ensure that state prisons and local jails are “safe, stable, and humane.”

This was the first time this legislation to reform the State Commission of Correction was brought up for a committee vote in either house of the New York State Legislatures. This follows months of advocacy by community groups and directed impacted community members who have demanded that Albany do more to address the various crises unfolding in city jails across the state, including the deadly Rikers Island Jail Complex. 

This legislation will expand the number of commissioners from three to nine and distribute appointments among the Governor, the Senate, the Assembly, and the Correctional Association of New York. The appointment requirements would guarantee a diversity of backgrounds, including in public health, behavioral healthcare, prisoner’s rights litigation, and personal experiences of incarceration.

Quotes from elected officials, community groups, and impacted community members: 

Senator Julia Salazar, Chair of the Committee on Crime, Crime Victims, and Correction, Prime Bill Sponsor, said: “This bill will ensure the State Commission of Correction is more independent, accountable, and effective. Given SCOC’s charter to oversee and regulate correctional facilities throughout New York, the Commission’s appointments must come from more than just the Executive Branch. What’s more, SCOC needs expertise beyond just correctional administration. The new SCOC would add a total of six appointments from the Senate, Assembly, and Correctional Association of New York, the state-chartered, independent non-profit that has been inspecting New York state prisons since the 1840s. And these new appointees would offer essential professional experience in public health, behavioral healthcare, and indigent defense—as well as the perspective of formerly incarcerated people. I’m proud the Committee on Crime Victims, Crime, and Correction passed the bill, and we’ll continue pushing until it’s signed into law.”

Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, Prime Bill Sponsor, said: “The Commission of Correction has a simple but crucially important mandate: to ensure that basic standards of ‘humane and efficient’ administration are being met in New York State’s prisons and jails. One needs to look no further than the humanitarian crisis at Rikers Island to recognize they are failing at this task. That’s why I introduced legislation to overhaul the Commission’s composition, responsibilities and powers, and am so grateful for its passage by the Senate Corrections Committee. Senator Salazar and I are committed to seeing this legislation become law.”

Tawana Harris, Member of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, said: “While my son was incarcerated at Rikers Island, he suffered severe injuries at the hands of correctional officers. My son, who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia, was not feeling well on this particular day, and he approached correctional officers to get medical attention. Instead of helping him, they decided to beat the hell out of my son– they knew he had a mental illness and figured no one would believe him or stand for him. This, of course, was not the case as other incarcerated individuals witnessed this assault and immediately informed me. I fought hard for my kid as best as I could. He could have easily been one of the individuals that have died while being taken at Rikers. Under the Adams administration, at least 31 people have died in city jails. The conditions are horrifying. I am grateful that my kid is alive and we got justice through the lawsuit we filed, but this should have never been the case. Situations like these happen on a daily basis, and we need to strengthen independent oversight bodies to ensure that incarcerated individuals are being kept safe and that conditions are humane. If not, as is the case at Rikers Island, these facilities must be shut down. I urge the state legislature to pass S.5877 / A. 5709 this legislative session.”

Stephan Poole, Member of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice: “It is upsetting that state prisons and local jails are not meeting the basic human rights needs of people detained. Presently, the conditions at Rikers Island are life-threatening for both staff and incarcerated individuals. We need a State Commission of Corrections that will take immediate action to address issues plaguing all jails and prisons and close them if they fail to keep people safer. It is of the utmost importance to increase and diversify the number of members of the State Commission of Correction to reduce bias. Appointing individuals outside the spectrum of law enforcement will allow for more compassion and a wider understanding of what is needed to keep incarcerated people safe. Accordingly, the commission can make the necessary changes in state and local facilities or even shut them down. I urge the state legislature to pass S.5877 / A. 5709 to expand and diversify the State Commission of Correction.”

Anthony Maund, Leader of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice: “While I was incarcerated at State Correctional Facility, I got to experience first-hand the inhumane conditions that exist in jails and prisons across New York. I have had many situations where a correctional officer has been extremely heavy-handed and used physical force on me. I have filed grievances for these cases that were never heard and there was no type of accountability. DOCCS is allowing many state correctional facilities to get away with inhumane conditions and abuse by corrections officers. Incarcerated people are being treated poorly, and when they are released back home, they bring back all of the trauma they endured while detained. There is a big need for a watchdog like the State Commission of Corrections that will fulfill its purpose of ensuring that all these facilities are humane and do not violate people’s constitutional rights. Increasing the number of members and diversifying the members of this commission will allow for a fairer and more active commission. I urge the full Senate to pass S.5877. The Assembly must also do the same, and Governor Hochul should swiftly sign it into law.”

Statement from Yonah Zeitz, Advocacy Director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice: “The passage of S5877 by the Senate Crime Victims, Crime, and Correction Committee is a step in the right direction, and we thank the members who voted to advance this legislation. 

Right now, the conditions at Rikers Island are horrific and life-threatening for incarcerated people. The State Commission of Correction (SCOC) has a constitutional mandate to ensure that local jails across the state are ‘safe and humane,’ yet every day another horrific scandal emerges from Rikers and other jails across our state. From Buffalo to Suffolk county and everywhere in between, there is a crisis in humanitarian jails in New York. The SCOC issued a report in 2018 highlighting the need to close Rikers, yet has done nothing to assert its authority to do so. New York needs and deserves an effective independent watchdog for its correctional facilities. That is why the SCOC was initially established, and it’s time to bring it back to fulfilling its purpose. 

Now that the Committee has moved the bill forward, it’s time the full Senate takes up and passes this measure. And the Assembly must do the same. We urge the Legislature to act quickly and deliver this bill to the governor’s desk.”

 

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