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Assaults on prison guards in N.Y. at all-time high, union complains

Assaults on correction officers at New York State prisons are on the increase.

The union representing the officers says violence against them is at an all-time high.

State officials who oversee New York’s 54 prisons and their 53,611 inmates do not put it in such dramatic terms. They say there has been an “uptick” in assaults.

The union says the state is not taking steps to adequately punish inmates who attack officers and is underreporting the number of attacks.

State officials insist that safety of officers is a top priority and that they are working diligently to improve working conditions by developing a three-year plan to increase security, possibly add more officers, and improve staff training. More union input, the state says, is also being sought.

Union officials say the closing of 13 prisons across the state since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took office, including four in July, has contributed to the frequency of assaults throughout the prison system. They says the number of attacks is on pace to hit a five-year high this year.

The union predicts that there will be 718 assaults by Dec. 31, compared with 567 in 2009.

And to drive home their point on dangerous working conditions, union officials traveled Tuesday to Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison that in 1971 was the scene of the nation’s bloodiest prison riot, to hold a news conference calling for action by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

“There needs to be a systematic overhaul of DOCCS’ philosophy regarding the safety of our membership and all staff working inside the prison system,” said Michael B. Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association. “Not enough is being done to protect our members or hold the inmates accountable when they attack the men and women who are maintaining order.”

Anthony J. Annucci, acting commissioner for the corrections department, denied that the state is underreporting attacks on correction officers, insisting the department has a comprehensive reporting system that includes four classifications of physical injuries that is stricter than the threshold for charging assault under criminal law.

The categories are minor, moderate, serious and severe.

“The safety of our employees is a primary focus of mine. I remind everyone that any act of violence in a state prison will be aggressively investigated and, if warranted, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Annucci said, adding that more cases are being referred to county district attorneys.

As for the contention that more assaults are occurring because of prison closings and higher concentrations of inmates, Annucci said, “While there has been an uptick in the rates of assaults on staff, there is no correlation to any of the prison closures.”

About 80 percent of assaults on correction officers occur at the state’s 17 maximum-security prisons, and none of those prisons has been closed, Annucci said.

Attica, which has 2,102 inmates, has experienced 64 attacks on staff in the last 12 months, according to DOCCS statistics.

In the last 12 months at medium-security facilities, Annucci said, “each experienced less than five assaults on staff.”

Disputing how DOCCS categorizes and deals with attacks on officers, James Miller, spokesman for the correction officers union, said that many attacks are downplayed by management but that if they were to occur outside prisons, criminal charges would be appropriate.