Assaults against security staff in state prisons are down 34 percent statewide and 51 percent locally for the first quarter of this year compared with the same time last year.
Officials at the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision released the numbers to make a case that complaints of increased hazards from inmates in the state's 60 facilities are unfounded.
"Recent allegations that DOCCS facilities are overcrowded or have experienced increased violence are not borne out in the facts," DOCCS spokesman Peter K. Cutler said Tuesday.
The union representing some 21,000 corrections officers and sergeants offers a contrary opinion, claiming that inmate attacks against the security staff have increased in recent years, despite a reduction in inmate population.
"The population went down 8.3 percent from January 2009 to January 2012, so you would expect that inmate-on-staff assaults would go down by at least 8.3 percent and it has not," said Morgan Hook, a spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association.
At present, there are 55,918 inmates, down from 2009 when the inmate population was 60,844.
For all of 2011, inmate attacks against correctional officers, supervisors and other staff numbered 563, according to Cutler.
In 2010, 577 attacks occurred, and in 2009, 567 attacks.
In the first quarter of this year at the 11 local prisons, Cutler said, there were 14 assaults against staff members compared with 2011's first quarter when there were 29.
"DOCCS has always acknowledged the dangers encountered by our dedicated security personnel within our facilities, and we will always support the brave men and women who serve every day, ensuring the safety and security of our facilities and the general public," Cutler said.
But with the reduced inmate population in recent years, Hook said, the state has cut 1,780 correctional officers and sergeants and the result has been a greater frequency of attacks against the remaining staff.
So who is correct in the competing numbers put out by the state and union?
It turns out both the union and state officials can use numbers to buttress their competing claims about how safe the prisons are.
The union can say that the decrease in incidents of assaults in the last few years is much smaller than the decrease in both inmate and staffing levels.
There was a significant decrease in the size of both the inmate population and the staffing level, roughly 7 to 8 percent.
However, the decrease in the number of incidents was negligible, less than 1 percent.
The state can point out in a small sample over a short period of time, the first three months of this year and last year, the number of incidents has dropped in half locally and about 34 percent statewide.
And what may be propelling this war of numbers is the fact that the state and NYSCOPBA have been at odds over reaching a new contract. The union has been without a new pact since April 2009.
Cutler, in further defending the state, said that for the past two years, 96 percent of the inmate-on-staff assaults resulted in no disabling injuries.
"But we don't want to minimize the severity of such assaults. We take them very seriously and punish the offenders accordingly," Cutler said.
NYSCOPBA, Hook said, wants an evaluation conducted at state prisons to find out why assault incidents have not decreased substantially.