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New effort to monitor misconduct by state’s prison guards is overdue

The stories about fights, name-calling, racial slurs and even killings behind prison walls do not seem unusual, except for the identities of the alleged perpetrators: prison guards.

The New York Times and the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on criminal justice issues, has for months highlighted some of the worst cases of abuse in the state prison system. It has been because of this work that issues demanding immediate attention have come to light. Among them, that prison officials have had no way of tracking problems with guards.

A spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision informed reporters that it had begun electronically logging the complaints “to allow it to monitor accusations of staff members’ misconduct.” That effort will be completed in 2016, none too soon.

State officials have indicated there are about 4,000 open investigations into grievances filed by New York State prisoners. Even if many are unfounded, that still leaves a disturbing total for 53,000 inmates across 54 facilities.

The use of excessive force by guards is not just wrong, it’s expensive. The Times story noted that since 2010, the state has paid out at least $8.8 million in settlements or jury awards in cases in which guards were accused of prisoner abuse or excessive force.

The Times and the Marshall Project, in an impressive display of investigative reporting, have illuminated instances of brutality by corrections officers at prisons across the state. Too often such acts have been conducted without consequence. Some of the accused guards under scrutiny have retained their jobs. At worst, some have resigned or retired. It is a remarkable lack of justice.

The Times and Marshall Project pored through settlements and jury awards since 2010 and found that Attica, site of a deadly riot in 1971, stood out, as it was cited in 28 lawsuits, the most of any state prison.

Being a prison guard is far from easy. The job is difficult and often dangerous and a situation can quickly spiral out of control. But the response to provocations cannot descend into criminal behavior.

The announcement by the state Attorney General’s Office late last year about plans to team up with the Cuomo administration to reduce the “litigation risk” facing Corrections and other agencies is a hopeful sign. The system for tackling inmate complaints is another. Change can’t come soon enough.