No severe prison staffing shortage in New York

Published: Aug. 19, 2019 at 4:11 PM EDT
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Prison jobs are a critical part of Northern New York's economy with seven prisons across the North Country. We wanted to know if staffing problems exist here-- and at a glance, the answer is no.

Alabama-- one of the states facing pressure from the feds-- has 9.9 inmates for each correctional officer. In New York, that number statewide is 2.4 inmates for each CO.

Still, as our Kelly O'Brien learned, there are concerns about staffing and safety in New York's prisons.

The seven state prisons in our area are home to more than 6,000 inmates and they employ more than 3,000 people between correctional officers and other staffers. Right now, staffing ratios do not seem to be a big concern. But advocates do worry about downward pressure on area facilities as the state continues to consolidate prisons.

The correctional officers, known at COs, are there to help keep the inmates in order and safe, same as the other prison staffers like teachers, counselors and vocational instructors.

Inadequate staffing leads to idle time for the inmates.

"It doesn't mean they are going to right away misbehave or do things that are difficult for the officers but within time, what does happen?" said John Mockry, the chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Clinton Community College.

In that idle time is when things can get rough in a prison. And not having enough staff members, particularly the COs, could lead to dangerous situations.

"Most of the violence that happens in a prison is inmate to inmate. It's an officer's job to prevent that," Mockry said.

Prior to his move to politics, Assemblyman Billy Jones was a CO at Chateaugay Correctional. He says he will fight to keep prison jobs because he knows firsthand their importance and has a bill out to the Assembly regarding prison staffing.

"Certainly the more staff we have, the more we feel that those correctional facilities will be safe for everyone involved," said Jones, D-Chateaugay.

There are 54 facilities statewide that house 45,968 inmates. The North Country is home to seven of those facilities, holding 6,286 inmates and employing 3,381 people.

Statewide, prison staffing has dropped by 14 percent over the past 20 years, but that's largely because the prison population has dropped by 37 percent in that period.

"The more officers, clearly the better in terms of observation and recognition of the problems, so they can stop them before they happen," Mockry said.

He said you can't always have what you want, but for the inmates' safety it's important to have enough COs on, around and aware of what's going on inside those walls.

"The inmates say there is less correctional officers now, good. No. Some of them would be in more danger. Not that they're looking for guards to protect them, but the guards will," Mockry said.

Since 1999, there have been 13 prisons closed in the state of New York and the incarcerated population us down almost 37 percent. The governor has already said he plans to continue this trend, closing three more prisons just this year. No North Country prisons will be on the chopping block but Livingston Correctional and Lincoln Correctional are set to close and need to be shut down by Sept. 1.