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Facing reality in right-sizing state's prisons

The cost of incarceration in New York State has raised legitimate concerns. While I welcome honest criticism of my management of the Department of Correctional Services, the leaders of the correction officers' union are sidestepping the most significant issue and spreading misinformation as they fight the right-sizing of the state prison system.

State correctional facilities hold 2,250 fewer inmates than they did just a year ago. More than 5,400 beds sit empty. We simply do not need the level of staff we have. Since uniformed employees make up more than two-thirds of our work force, it is only logical that they see the largest overall decrease.

The leaders of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association largely ignore this population loss as they fight consolidation. Meanwhile, a "fact sheet" they distributed in Albany recently claims 10,170 offenders are double-bunked in single cells in medium and minimum security prisons. That's impossible; those prisons are made up almost exclusively of dormitory-style housing. Combined, they hold just 21 cells.

The "fact sheet" also cites double-bunked cells at three maximum security prisons without explaining that those cells were designed to hold two offenders in the first place, and in accordance with all state regulations. And the union's display in the well of Albany's Legislative Office Building included a photograph of a prison dormitory overcrowded with inmates in orange uniforms. New York bans orange for security reasons; inmates here wear green.

The union's solutions -- to reduce Central Office staffing and streamline individual prison management -- are equally misguided.

Ninety-eight percent of department employees work at correctional facilities across the state. To manage a $3 billion-plus annual budget, a central office team that accounts for just 2 percent of the agency's staff -- and that despite being cut by more than 9 percent in the last three years produced nearly $300 million in savings -- is hardly excessive.

To combine individual prison management teams wherever there are two facilities in close proximity would invite trouble. Prisons operate best when staff and offenders alike know who's in charge and see and talk to those leaders as they regularly walk through galleries, dormitories, yards and mess halls.

At the core of every serious prison incident nationwide is a lack of firm, knowledgeable leadership and neglect of the needs, moods and problems of the institution. Our system has remained free of any major incidents for 13 years, and our safety rate has stayed at historic lows. Let's keep it that way.

We must control costs, generate savings and -- in the face of a projected drop of yet another 1,000 offenders in the coming year -- close prisons. No private business would continue operating empty facilities. State taxpayers cannot afford to maintain the status quo.

Brian Fischer is the commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services.

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