Gov Cuomo visits Greene Correctional Facility

Gov. Andrew Cuomo toured the disciplinary housing unit at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie on Thursday morning accompanied by some personal staff including bodyguards, as well as Acting Corrections Commissioner Anthony Annucci and prison Superintendent Brandon Smith. He asked a lot of questions.

You could hear distant yelling by inmates, which under the rules they’re not supposed to do, who knew Cuomo was coming.

“Is that the governor?” one inmate asked after he passed.
“Yeah. What do you think?”
“Can I get us a supper service?”

The disciplinary unit holds up to 200 prisoners in cells about 8 feet wide and 14 feet deep, with bunk beds, a long desk with two attached seats, shower and toilet. Inmates in the unit are locked in their cells 22 hours a day and can go out on even smaller caged balconies for two hours a day, the corrections officials told Cuomo. He looked through an empty cell and walked up and down a wing of cells, where pairs of inmates pressed against small permanently closed windows to see the group go by. Nearly all are African-American.

Cuomo had visited the prison and later talked to reporters to renew his push for legislation to raise the age of commitment to adult prisons in New York from 16 to 18 for many crimes. State prisons currently have less than 100 prisoners who are 16 or 17, including 49 at Greene, according to corrections officials. 

Others are in county jails and Rikers Island in New York City awaiting trials or for shorter sentences. 

Commitments to the disciplinary unit vary, often 15 or 30 days for fighting, but can last months, such as for a serious stabbing, Smith said. A committee meets weekly to review their status.

The governor shook hands with all the prison staff he met or passed and said hello to inmates as well through their windows. Many greeted him back. Others stared. 

He exchanged a few words with a young inmate.
“You’re in drug treatment?”
“You stay strong.”
“You too. … Stay safe.”

Cuomo asked about him later and was told that the young inmate had been assaulted.

The unit has 10 inmates under 18, according to Greene officials. 

The medium-security prison holds about 1,500 inmates. Common crimes of commitment are robbery and burglary, the corrections officials said.

Mental health counselors told him about 180 inmates are on psychotropic medications, including anti-depressants, that excessive anxiety and depression are the most common problems, and there’s occasionally psychosis and bi-polar disorder.

Cuomo said that number seemed low.

“My population is generally under 21 so it’s a healthier population,” Smith said.

A group of corrections officers said fighting stems partly from gang affiliations and partly from the youth and impulsiveness of the inmates, where incidents can escalate very fast.
“They’re all big kids who want to run around and cause problems,” one officer said.

Another pointed to “a wolfpack mentality” where fights can involve several inmates. They also said they need more staff.

Cuomo noted that revisions in the Rockefeller drug laws over several years have taken about 18,000 non-violent inmates out of New York’s prison system, leaving a smaller, more violent population. 

Cuomo said later that his administration is funding 100 additional corrections officers for the prison system this year.

Greene has 631 staff, including 487 in security. It has about 800 inmates in school, about 760 taking high school equivalency courses, and about 150 of those in special education. About 40 are taking Siena college classes, according to Green officials.

Guards said some new drugs, including synthetic marijuana, have become a growing problem the past two years and make some inmates particularly violent. The double bunking in the disciplinary unit, especially on hot days, also often leads to fighting, guards said.

The governor sat down with three 17-year-olds about their experience. All three told him they’d previously spent time in juvenile detention facilities. All were housed in dormitories, not disciplinary housing.

Xavier Pirela of Troy said there were more programs at Greene, where he took a class in doing electrical work, for seven or eight months. “That was good. It taught me a lot,” he said.

At a news conference later in the day, Cuomo called adult prisons abusive. Cuomo also said that the state will hire 100 new correction officers. The governor noted that while the inmate population has decreased, violence has increased.

Media pool report by  MichaelVirtanen, AP with contributions from Lowell Houston of Buffalo and Justin Joseph of Newburgh.

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