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Audit Faults New York Prison Oversight

The New York State Commission of Correction (SCOC) is failing to fulfill its prison and jail oversight duties, according to an audit released on August 25, 2008 by the State Comptroller.

SCOC is responsible for overseeing New York’s 69 adult prisons, 4 secure juvenile prisons, 77 county jails and 317 local police lock-ups. “For the fiscal year ended March 31, 2007, SCOC received a State appropriation of $2.6 million.” The SCOC is comprised of three commissioners and 25 employees, down from 66 employees in 1990.

To carry out its mission, SCOC adopted rules governing facility construction and operation and the treatment of prisoners. SCOC is mandated by law to ensure compliance with its regulations by conducting site inspections, to evaluate “safety, security, health of inmates, sanitary conditions, rehabilitative programs, disturbance and fire prevention and control preparedness, and adherence to laws and regulations governing the rights of inmates.”

SCOC is also responsible for: investigating grievances and complaints about the treatment of inmates, approving the construction of new facilities and the expansion or renovation of existing facilities; and the training of jail and prison employees.

DOCS Facilities

As of December 31, 2006, the New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) operated 69 adult prisons, confining approximately 63,000 prisoners. Although SCOC is charged by law with regularly inspecting DOCS facilities, when SCOC’s staff was cut in the 1990s, it stopped inspecting DOCS facilities to focus its scarce resources exclusively on local facilities.

“SCOC officials stated that, under current arrangements, inspectors visit DOCS facilities only in certain special circumstances: (1) when a DOCS facility requests that its inmate population be allowed to exceed its rated capacity or (2) when there is an incident (such as inmate violence or inmate death) that needs to be investigated independently,” wrote auditors. SCOC has not conducted any inspections to determine whether DOCS facilities are complying with SCOC regulations since 1988.

Auditors found that “if SCOC is to accomplish its regulatory mission, it must provide an inspection capacity.” Accordingly, auditors recommended “that SCOC establish an ongoing formal risk assessment process for targeting scarce resources selectively, inspecting those facilities that have the greatest need for review.”

OCFS Facilities

The Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) operated four secure juvenile facilities. In 1996, state law made SCOC responsible for overseeing those facilities. SCOC was also charged with adopting rules “for the care, custody, and treatment of center residents,” and inspecting the facilities to ensure compliance with its regulations.

SCOC has not adopted rules and it did not inspect OCFS facilities until 2007. “SCOC officials told us that they were working on the regulations but had been unable to complete them due to a lack of legal resource,” auditors wrote. “The officials said they hope to complete the standards during the fiscal year 2007-2008.”

Auditors acknowledged the difficulties caused by staff reductions, but found that “SCOC has had more than ten years to complete the process. As a result of SCOC’s lack of progress in this area, OCFS secure centers have received minimal oversight from SCOC.”
This provided less assurance that the youth were housed in a safe, stable, and humane environment. Accordingly, auditors recommended that “SCOC complete the regulations as expeditiously as possible” and in the interim “perform basic inspections at the centers to ensure that there is a minimally-acceptable level of care, custody, and treatment.”
County and Local Facilities

As of December 31, 2006, SCOC regulations governed 77 county correctional facilities. SCOC is responsible for overseeing these facilities to ensure compliance with the regulations, and has established various inspection goals for these agencies. SCOC is also responsible for inspecting the state’s 317 local police lock-ups every two years.

With respect to the county jails, the audit found that while SCOC is regularly inspecting these facilities, it “is not meeting its inspection goals fully, as some inspections are not complete.” Moreover, auditors found that “SCOC does not always follow up” as it is required to when significant violations are found during inspections. Auditors recommended that “SCOC develop a mechanism for tracking the inspection process and use it to ensure that its inspection goals are met and all required follow-up action is taken.”

Auditors also “found that many of the lock-ups were not inspected every two years” and “recommendations for corrective action were not always followed up.” There is “no requirement for local police lock-ups to report their operation” and “there is no centralized listing of all of the local police lock-ups throughout New York.” As a result, auditors noted “SCOC officials told us that their staff occasionally discovers new or recommissioned local police lock-ups by accident (e.g. driving by them).” Auditors made several recommendations including requiring “local police lock-ups to report their existence to SCOC” and developing “a comprehensive tracking system for monitoring the stats of inspections at local police lock-ups.”

Grievances and Complaints

SCOC is responsible for establishing procedures for the investigation of grievances and complaints about the treatment of prisoners. SCOC receives thousands of grievances and complaints each year.

While auditors found that grievances were generally handled in accordance with SCOC policies and procedures, it also “found certain improvements are needed.” Specifically, “SCOC generally does not follow up with facility officials to ensure that appropriate corrective action is, in fact, taken.” Additionally, “the complaint resolution process may not be subject to adequate supervisory review, and grievances are not always resolved within the 25-business-day time frame adopted by SCOC.” Accordingly, auditors recommended “that a formal quality assurance process be developed for the resolution of grievances and complaints.”

Jack Beck of the Corrections Association of New York is not surprised by the audit’s findings. His independent non-profit group has legislative authority to inspect state prisons and report findings to lawmakers and the public.

Beck believes SCOC staffing reductions have diminished its effectiveness, in terms of how rigorous its inspection process is. The commission doesn’t appear to be doing a lot of monitoring when it comes to prison construction and renovation, which is needed to ensure there are adequate services for prisoners and security, suggested Beck. “I believe that they need more staffing to be monitoring what they’re looking at,” said Beck. “They need to be more aggressive.”

See: Oversight of Correctional Facilities and Handling of Grievances and Complaints. Office of the New York State Comptroller, Report 2006-S-93 (August 25, 2008).

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