Prisons were a recurrent subplot in memorials to Mario Cuomo over the past week, from The Times’ sweeping obit to Wayne Barrett’s personal reflection on the late governor’s life. That’s because Cuomo, who opposed the death penalty at great political peril, offset those risks by building a lot of prison cells.
Some of those cells have been retired thanks to reforms to the state’s drug laws—the New York prison population has decreased by roughly a quarter since its peak around the year 2000. But the prison census, which leapt to a then-record 30,000 in Mario Cuomo’s first year as governor, stood at roughly 54,000 at the beginning of 2014. That means the Empire State’s prison population was still 80 percent higher than when the first Cuomo era began, far outpacing the 11 percent growth in state population over that period.
Where there are cells, there is violence. Over the past year, there’s been ample attention to the problems of mental illness and violence in the jails at Rikers Island, prompting a lawsuit from the feds and a set of reforms ordered by City Hall.
For all the focus on jails—which are city- or county-run and lock people up to await trial or serve sentences of less than a year, usually for misdemeanors—there’s been little attention to violence in prisons, which are run by states or the federal government and typically detain convicted felons for stretches of 12 months or more.
According to reports from the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, violence is less common in the state system even though it is far larger than the city’s. In calendar 2013, the state prisons reported just under 1400 assaults by inmates on other inmates or on staff. The city jails, which house less than one fourth as many people, reported 8,800 “fight/assault infractions” in fiscal 2014.
But prisons seem to have a bigger suicide problem—one year that stands out is 2010, when there were two suicides in city jails and 20 in state prisons.
And despite the decrease in prison population (it fell from 63,000 to 54,000 over the period covered by the charts below), the level of violence seems to have spiked in 2013, and the use of force has generally risen.