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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Big jail troubles persist despite fewer inmates

The Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead is seen

The Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead is seen here on Feb, 2, 2006. Credit: Newsday / Daniel Goodrich

Inmate totals have plunged. Crime rates are down. Many Democratic and Republican politicians agree that excessive incarceration is a waste.

And yet, from Rikers Island to the Attica Correctional Facility, abuses and violence behind bars keep generating news.

New York City officials scramble to make changes after a federal report slammed use-of-force and solitary-confinement practices. In western New York, three correction officers resigned and pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in the severe beating of an Attica inmate.

The Nassau County Jail drew particular criticism two years ago from the state's correction commission over the suicide of decorated ex-Marine Bartholomew Ryan. Also, Suffolk's jail in Riverhead was targeted in a class-action suit alleging deplorable conditions.

To some degree, horror stories, as well as tales of corruption and smuggling, have been coming out of American prisons and jails for as long as anyone can recall.

But the latest episodes arise when you'd think they might be dissipating. At this point, "the news clips in Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore appear to be a version of what we're reading about now in New York," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and a former city correction commissioner. "It's about the conditions."

Remarkably, the city's jail population, which peaked at about 23,000 in 1993, has fallen to 10,000 plus, Jacobson said. And the state prison system, with 72,000 inmates in the mid-1990s, has fewer than 54,000 today.

Calls to "lock more people up" have abated, he said, adding: "You can argue until the cows come home what reduces crime, but you cannot argue that it's more incarceration."

So in blue-state New York, progressives and civil-liberties advocates push against a reliance on mass incarceration. But so does a Texas-based group, "Right on Crime," a name that indicates its political leanings. A former Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives, Jerry Madden, is listed as a "senior fellow" there and former Gov. Rick Perry has signed its statement of principles.

That statement, in part: "Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending. . . . [Our prisons] are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders -- making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered."

Now, with incarceration having run its course as a popular cure-all, you may wonder why troubles behind bars, where overcrowding was once the concern, haven't eased. Says Jacobson: "No one's paid that much attention to the conditions -- to what happens when you put people in. It's the missing piece of the conversation."

As always, labor issues come into play when prison and jail conditions draw scrutiny.

Following the three Attica officers' pleas on March 1, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's correction commissioner, Anthony Annucci, said he's "firmly committed to looking at all available options, including pushing for substantial changes during next year's contract negotiations, to appropriately discipline any security staff who commit egregious acts of misconduct" -- while protecting their due-process rights.

Council 82 of AFSCME, the officers' union, has a contract expiring March 31 of next year.


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