NY lawmaker, a former CO, wants to end double-bunking in state prisons

"The prison setting is stressful enough without requiring a single officer to supervise 60 inmates during a shift"

Robert Harding
The Citizen

NEW YORK — A former correctional officer who now serves in the state Assembly is leading a legislative push to end double-bunking in New York's medium-security prisons.

Assemblyman Billy Jones, a Democrat, authored a bill that has bipartisan support. It would prohibit double-bunking and require the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to provide inmates who are in double-bunked housing with other accommodations.

There are regulations that allow for a 60-inmate maximum in a medium-security dormitory, with 10 inmates double-bunked in cubicles usually reserved for one incarcerated individual. The double-bunking rules date back to the 1980s and '90s when the inmate population was on the rise.

However, the prison population has been declining over the last several years. As of Feb. 1, there were 43,881 inmates in the state's 52 correctional facilities. It's one of the main reasons why Gov. Andrew Cuomo has closed 17 prisons — and hopes to close more this year.

Jones, who represents the Plattsburgh area, believes the state should end double-bunking and restore the 50-inmate maximum in dormitories — a policy that was in place before double-bunking began.

"As a 20-year correction officer, I've worked in dorms that utilize double bunks to house inmates. The prison setting is stressful enough without requiring a single officer to supervise 60 inmates during a shift. The practice of double-bunking is irresponsible and outdated," Jones said.

The legislation to prohibit double-bunking has the support of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, the union representing state corrections officers. NYSCOPBA has long criticized the practice and argues that it contributes to violence in prison.

In 2019, DOCCS reported there were 1,265 assaults on inmates and 1,033 assaults on staff. Most of the assaults on staff occurred in maximum-security prisons, but the number of inmate-on-staff assaults in medium-security facilities — 249 — was the highest since 2015.

NYSCOPBA President Michael Powers thinks that if the trend of increased violence continues in state prisons, 2020 will be worse for inmates and staff.

"The inmate population has decreased to a level where the use of double bunks is no longer warranted," Powers said. "The space is available to spread the inmate population out and provide a safer environment for staff and inmates alike. Rather than close prisons and force inmates into less space, the state should take the initiative and remove the double bunks and right-size the system that way."

DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci testified at a state budget hearing last week and was asked about double-bunking. He disputed claims that double-bunking has contributed to violence in prisons — he believes other factors, including gangs, are to blame — and said that the state wouldn't be able to close additional prisons if double-bunking is prohibited.

Annucci also defended the use of double-bunking. He explained that inmates wouldn't be in those living situations for a long period because of the turnover in the prison system.

But there are Democrats and Republicans who believe that double-bunking should be eliminated. Jones' bill is supported by Assemblyman David Weprin, a Democrat who chairs the Assembly Committee on Correction, and Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, an Oswego County Republican.

"(DOCCS) should immediately take steps to address the overcrowding in medium dorms by removing double bunks and limiting the number of inmates in those dorms to a maximum of 50," Jones said. "This must be done before the state ever considers closing any more facilities. Our corrections staff has a very difficult job as it is, and overcrowding these dormitories makes it even more difficult."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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