by Derek Gilna
The Central New York Psychiatric Center, located near Syracuse, New York, which houses sex offenders, already roiled by claims of employee misconduct and mismanagement, was hit with new charges of illegal drugs, unreported violent assaults and sexual misconduct.
New York state troopers were searching all employees entering the high-security facility for drugs and contraband, as part of their probe of the troubled institution, prompting widespread employee backlash.
The investigation was launched at the behest of the New York state Office of Mental Health (OMH), who responded to labor union allegations in February 2018 that there have been about 210 criminal incidents there. However, the OMH itself did not escape criticism.
“Unfortunately, OMH policy and procedures have failed to keep our members safe from anything,” said guard union leader John Harmon. ”To be honest with you, it’s a complete failure at Central New York Psychiatric Center. Harmon said OMH had not done proper background checks before hiring, which contributed to the center’s drug problem. “Obviously they didn’t do something right if they’ve got drug dealers in the facility,” he said. “If you’ve got management that doesn’t properly vet candidates for jobs, then your policy and procedure is making the job unsafe.”
He also indicated that OMH had also fired some employees in violation of labor agreements, and altered work polices to cut vacation time, resulting in sick time increases, and short-staffing, further reducing morale. “There is no accountability for the Office of Mental Health, none,” he said. However, he said, “When something goes wrong, it’s our members’ faults. We’re held accountable for the mismanagement and misdirection of the administration.”
Investigators noted that between 2012 and 2016, there were two inmate deaths, 40 assaults and 25 sex offenses that required police responses. According to Eric Hall, president of the psychiatric center’s Civil Services Employee Association, said, that the level of mismanagement was staggering.
“They might feel embarrassed about what’s going on, and they’re taking it out on us and it seems like the whole policies and procedures are going out the window,” he said. Over a dozen employees had been disciplined or fired, he added.
“It’s created a pretty bad atmosphere for employees ... there is a huge turnover rate, and it’s hard to run programs,” he said, to benefit the prisoners and sex offenders, referring to the many different services for inmates and sex offenders. “It’s the way they’re approaching everything and it’s pretty ugly,” he continued. “The morale between staff is pretty bad, and there [are] a lot of people who don’t want to come to work.”
Complicating improvements at the facility is the fact that New York’s civil commitment statute provides for convicted sex offenders who have served their sentences can still be held in custody indefinitely, and OMH currently civilly confined over 230 individuals.
Harmon acknowledged the challenge OMH and his union members face in dealing with these types of confinees: “The problem is when you put that type of inmate into the system, and they don’t know if or when they’re getting out, they’re probably pissed off and they’re going to act out.” Injuries are common for both confinees and employees, he said, with at least 15 guards and 22 prisoners injured in the facility, according to official records, but union officials say the exact number is much higher, as many assaults of guards go unreported and unprosecuted.
Criminal justice experts say the whole concept of civil commitment needs to be revisited, but in the meantime, supervision of OMH facilities must be increased, since the state spends $175,000 on each detainee, and a total of $65 million annually. Those same experts noted that to supervise the same individual on probation cost less than $10,000 annually.
The New York civil commitment law, instituted in 2005, permits judges to civilly confine individuals who have an “abnormality” diagnosis given by OMH, but statistics show that judges rarely rule again the agency. Those same statistics show that although the system confines many violent offenders, two-thirds of those currently in custody had no prior convictions for a sex crime. Nonetheless, courts supported the all-important “abnormality” diagnosis in 91 percent of 564 cases between 2007 and 2015.
Based upon litigation in other jurisdictions, a court challenge might soon be forthcoming to challenge the law, and given the current turmoil in the OMH system, it very well could be successful.
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