The shrinking of New York State’s prison population has been pronounced. From 60,000 people in 2009, state prisons now hold just about 49,000 men and women, thanks to reforms of the drug laws and sustained low crime rates.
Of course, 49,000 people is still a large population–larger than that of nine New York counties. And while the system’s contraction is good news for the state as a whole, the process of downsizing can have harsh impacts on people who remain stuck in it.
Take the closure of three state prisons in New York City (Arthur Kill on Staten Island, Bayview in Manhattan and Fulton in the Bronx) since 2011. In a state that used to specialize in building prisons, the closures herald a new, more enlightened era.
But they also mean there are fewer options for housing offenders from the city within the city. That translates to more distance from family members and other community connections that prove vitally important when sentences end and reentry occurs.
Gov. Cuomo now plans to close Lincoln Correctional Facility on 110th Street in Manhattan, leaving the Edgecombe Residential Treatment Facility in the Bronx and the minimum security Queensboro prison in Sunnyside as the only remaining state correctional facilities in the five boroughs.
As Osborne Association president and CEO Elizabeth Gaynes told this week’s Max & Murphy Show on WBAI, closing Lincoln is especially problematic because it hosts a work-release program that she says is crucial to achieving a positive reentry for the people now leaving state prisons, many of whom are coming off long sentences. Statistics indicate that those people are not high risks for committing new crimes, but they do face serious challenges reconnecting to society.
In many ways, the problems associated with closing Lincoln reflect the challenges the criminal justice system now faces after a wave of substantial reform.
On one hand, there is the question of political attention span. During the 2019 legislative session in Albany, Gaynes detected a level of fatigue after milestone reforms of the bail system and discovery laws, and the unresolved but intense debate about marijuana legalization. That fatigue is one reason why legislators failed to advance changes to the parole system–a mechanism that governs not just who gets out of prison but, increasingly, who goes back in for technical violations. It could also explain why no public official has spoken loudly in favor of keeping Lincoln open. “There’s really nothing left in New York, and what’s funny to me is that, when they try to close a prison upstate, the politicians go crazy, they say ‘Our economy is being affected, this is part of our community, we want this prison,’ but every single time a prison is closed in New York City, it’s like crickets,” Gaynes said. “Nobody seems to care.”
But there’s yet another factor at play. As the prison system shrinks, the people who remain in it are on average older, meaning they’ll increasingly need health services and face deeper challenges if and when released. They’re getting old in prison because they are serving extremely long sentences, a phenomenon unique to the United States among developed countries. And they are often behind bars for very serious crimes (65 percent of state prison population was convicted of a violent felony) that are to camera-ready for popular sympathy, even if there are clear signs of personal change and few risks of recidivism, because of the way we think about who is good and who is evil.
In other words, a smaller prison system could make it harder to ignore the fundamental flaws in America’s approach to incarceration and its cultural notions about crime. Which means some of us will try even harder to ignore them. As Gaynes put it:
So the challenge now is, after all of those years of saying ‘Release all the non-violent drug offenders. Those people shouldn’t be in prison!’ we threw everybody else under the bus, with the assumption that that means everybody who is there should be there, and should be there almost forever. The new problem is that we’ve created a virtually indigestible caste of people who we are categorizing as violent, although…these folks have definitely evolved. The recidivism rate, when we do release people who are older, whose crimes might have been murder years ago, the recidivism rate is very close to 0.
Hear our conversation with Gaynes below or catch the full show, which includes an interview with State Sen. Michael Gianaris about gun control, Albany politics and the progressive wave in Queens:
Osborne Association president and CEO Elizabeth Gaynes
Full Show of August 7, 2019
With reporting by Cyan Hunte