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Closing New York's overcrowded prisons is dangerous

These are tough times for New York, and crucial decisions are being made about how our government can best cut costs. Undoubtedly, slashing spending at New York's Department of Correctional Services must be taken into consideration. However, once the facts of New York's overcrowded and understaffed prison system are accurately clarified, it becomes clear that closing prisons is a choice the state cannot afford.

In recent weeks, Commissioner Brian Fischer has spread misleading and inaccurate information about the state of New York's prison system. At the same time, two government reports have been released that paint a more realistic and troubling picture of how the department allocates its resources and compiles vital statistics on the prison population and staffing levels.

A report by members of the Assembly found that "the Department of Correctional Services has changed the way it reports percentage of occupancy data, maintained unsafe inmate-to-staff ratios, allowed the double bunking of inmates and downgraded certain violent incidents by not reporting them as assaults."

A report by members of the State Senate determined that there is "rampant mismanagement" at the Department of Correctional Services and found that the department has spent more than $15 million on "wasteful" administrative, housing and overtime costs, providing at least eight superintendents with luxury housing at a significant loss to the state.

The true inmate-to-officer ratio is 19-to-1 in New York on the average afternoon shift. Currently, our maximum-security facilities are operating at 122 percent capacity and our medium-security facilities are at 102 percent capacity. This combination of more inmates and fewer officers is a dangerous and troubling trend.

The widespread practice of double bunking inmates, referred to in the Assembly report, houses two inmates in cells or dormitory-style spaces designed to fit only one. There are 14,892 inmates living in these conditions, posing an enormous risk to correctional officers and inmates.

Despite the fact that double bunking exists, Fischer continues to insist that there are "empty beds." As long as there are inmates living in spaces that are overcrowded and understaffed, those "empty beds" should not be empty.

If legislators want to make cuts, perhaps they should consider the fact that each prison has layer upon layer of bureaucracy. Individuals who rarely interact with inmates and perform duties that must be considered non-essential to public safety and inmate rehabilitation collect what are often six-figure salaries.

Let's right-size the system before we downsize the front lines of public safety. Once the facts emerge, it becomes increasingly clear that closing prisons is a choice New York cannot afford.

Donn Rowe is the president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association.

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