Hard time close to home:
Majority of state inmates now arrive at prison from outside New York City
By RICK KARLIN, Capitol bureau
Updated 12:38 a.m., Friday, November 11, 2011
ALBANY — It may be time to rethink the phrase “sent up the river.”
Historically, that meant someone from New York City was being dispatched to one of the numerous penitentiaries located across upstate or, in its original usage, to Sing-Sing Correctional Facility in Westchester County.
But these days it may be more accurate to describe inmates as going down the river — or perhaps along the Mohawk or Susquehanna rivers.
That’s because, for the first time in recent memory, the majority of state prison inmates are no longer coming from New York City.
The trend has been present for several years, but starting in 2010 the five boroughs lost their collective spot as the top generator of inmates, as more and more convicts are coming from the suburbs, upstate cities and even rural areas.
“The population is changing,” said Brian Fischer, commissioner of Corrections and Community Supervision.
As of Jan. 1, there were 56,315 people in the prison system, according to state statistics. About 48 percent were convicted in New York City, 12 percent from the suburbs and 23 percent from upstate cities. Another 16 percent came from other areas upstate.
At the beginning of 2010, 49 percent were from New York City, marking the first time it fell below half. In 2009, it was 50 percent. In 2008, 52 percent were from New York City.
Increasingly, inmates hail from cities like Newburgh, Buffalo and Rochester and, to a lesser extent, the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, Fischer said.
Crime experts offer several reasons for the shift, including recent drug law reforms; a movement of people from New York City to upstate, where housing prices are lower; and even former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crackdown on crime in the 1990s.
Fischer’s remarks came after he testified before the Assembly Committee on Correction, which held a hearing Thursday on the ongoing merger between the old Department of Correctional Services, which operates the prisons, and the Division of Parole.
The new combined agency is known as the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens, who chairs the chamber’s Correction Committee and has a reputation for diligence, was the only lawmaker to oversee the hearing. Legislators aren’t scheduled to be in session until January, and Thursday was the day before the three-day Veterans Day weekend.
Also present but not on the dais was Brooklyn Democratic state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, who serves on her chamber’s Crime Victims, Crime and Correction committee.
The audience seats, though, were filled with people who work in the newly combined prison and parole systems.
Fischer and Parole Board Chairwoman Andrea Evans acknowledged that the related growth in the numbers of inmates and parolees living upstate presents challenges, especially with staffing and finding facilities where ex-convicts can meet with parole officers.
Upstate parole officers and the courts are seeing a higher caseload, Evans said.
“This is probably this year’s and next year’s priority: How do you address the needs of upstate?,” Fischer said.
Aubry noted that this is not a new issue, and the state needs to develop a plan. “That bothers me, because it means we will sit around next year and report the same thing,” Aubry said.
A representative of the parole officers union said his members sometimes must do double duty manning metal detectors to protect against parolees who might be packing weapons.
“Basic parameters are being ignored,” said John Walters, a Public Employees Federation member and leader of the unit representing the state’s 1,140 parole officers.
Evans later said that even with growing caseloads, the Parole Board works to ensure that officers who are keeping track of dangerous parolees have limited caseloads of no more than 25 at any given time.
“We want to focus our attention on the high-risk parolees,” she said, meaning violent or sex offenders, plus people with mental health issues.
Reach Karlin at 454-5758 or email@example.com.
There were 56,315 individuals under custody in New York as of Jan. 1. Their regions of origin:
New York City48.3 percent
Suburban New York11.6 percent
Upstate urban23.7 percent
Upstate other16.4 percent
Source: Department of Corrections and Community Supervision