New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has told the state inspector general to launch an investigation into racial bias in the state prison system following an investigation by the New York Times. Prison advocates say the article has highlighted long-known facts, but critics say many of the accusations are based on hearsay.
In a recent article “The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prison’s” the New York Times reports that prisoners of color were punished at higher rates and subjected to solitary confinement more often than white inmates. Black inmates at one upstate prison were four times more likely than white prisoners to be sent to isolation. The paper also found that blacks were held in solitary confinement for longer periods than white counterparts.
Prisoners Legal Services of New York Executive Director Karen Murtagh says she was interviewed and provided some data to the newspaper. “I see it anecdotally, the racial disparities, in all the cases that come into P.L.S. But you know we have not seen it laid out in a report like that. So I think it's excellent that they were able to do that type of investigative reporting and put the data out there that actually shows that the disparities that we see anecdotally actually exist throughout the prison system.”
The Correctional Association of New York is the only group in the state with statutory authority to enter prisons to monitor conditions. Scott Paltrowitz, Associate Director of its Prison Visiting Project, says the article exposes a systemic problem across New York’s prison system. “The New York Times article it's very powerful that it's bringing attention to these issues that you know the Correctional Association and others have been pointing out for quite some time. This is a systemic problem and it's not to blame correction officers, I imagine 99 percent of correction officers are good decent human beings, but it’s the fault of a system that has been put in place to carry out this kind of racist brutality and torture. At the Correctional Association we have received complaints almost from every prison in the state on a daily basis about abuses that occur. So this is not just you know a few bad actors who are carrying this out. But this is really endemic to the system.”
115th Assembly District representative Janet Duprey, a Republican, is a member of the Committee on Corrections who frequently visits the correctional facilities in her district. A staunch supporter of corrections officers, she finds the New York Times article outrageous. “I have never heard a racial slur made in the times that I'm there. And you know I walk down the blocks. I don't just sit in the superintendent's office. I'm not sure where the New York Times guys are getting their information. I just find it really difficult to think that it’s rampant the way they tried to portray it. Two of the reporters who did this report interviewed me. It must have been for a couple of hours. They have never printed any of my comments. One of them said to me as they left well they probably wouldn't because they didn't like my comments. So how’s that for accurate reporting? And I'm not saying that inmates don't have some legitimate complaints but we have to just make sure that the line is equal and fair on both sides.”
NYSCOPBA is the union that represents corrections officers. Spokesman James Miller emailed WAMC News a statement noting: “The flawed New York Times report failed to recognize that it’s a hearing officer, not a member of NYSCOPBA, who controls the disciplinary process for inmates. That determination depends on the severity of the infraction and the inmate’s history of behavior in prison, and corrections officers have no role in the process.”
In the wake of the article’s publication, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday directed the state Inspector General to look into the allegations and recommend any necessary changes.