POST WRITTEN BY: Erica Danielsen (’16), J.D. Pace Law School
On Wednesday, December 2, 2015 the NY Assembly Standing Committee on Correction held a hearing in Albany to discuss “Oversight and Investigations of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS).” The Assembly held this hearing in the aftermath of the June 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape. The Assembly invited experts, academics, attorneys, and family members of inmates to testify. The Committee also invited Pace Law School Professor Michael B. Mushlin to testify.
Prof. Mushlin has extensive experience in the area of prisoners’ rights and brought his knowledge of prison oversight to the attention of the Committee. He expressed the importance of adequate oversight and noted key issues with New York’s current failure to provide adequate oversight of its correctional facilities. He stated that
oversight is needed because prisons are dark places where horrible things will happen unless there is oversight. Without oversight prisons cannot be humane despite the best of intentions and ‘inhumane prisons are not safe.’
Prof. Mushlin presented the Committee recommendations on how to improve its lacking system. He suggested critical components of oversight such as independence, an open door policy for physical access, an effective monitoring and regulatory system, the duty to report, and a legal requirement for correctional facilities to respond to investigation reports.
Professor Mushlin embraced organizations that New York already has in place such as the Correctional Association and Prisoners Legal Services of New York whose Executive Director, Karen Murtagh, also testified, and he pointed out that these organizations can only do so much, which is why legislative action is needed. Professor Mushlin critiqued the NYS Commission of Correction which currently has legislative authority to investigate and report on prisons but fails to live up to its legislative powers.
The Assembly further heard testimony from Charlene Burkett, Corrections Ombudsman of State of Indiana, and Kate Eves, Independent Oversight Consultant of United Kingdom and Wales. Ms. Burkett and Ms. Eves aided the discussion by offering insights about an overview, guidelines, and recommendations of how various oversight bodies work in other states and countries. Moreover, Jonathan Moore, Esq. – the lead counsel for New York’s stop and frisk case, attorney for the Eric Garner case, and counsel for the family of Samuel Harrell who tragically lost his life to guards at Fishkill – testified about the importance of civil rights issues. And last but certainly not least, came the emotional cries from two mothers whose son’s were abused in prisons bringing their own human realities to the attention of the Committee.
Neither the Inspector General nor the Commissioner of Corrections testified on Wednesday since the Clinton escape investigations are still pending. However, Daniel O’Donnell, the chair of the Committee on Correction, adjourned the hearing for a future date in order for those organizations to offer testimony about their findings. Mr. O’Donnell stated that he would subpoena them to testify if necessary.
- NYS Assembly Public Hearing: Oversight and Investigations of the Department of Corrections and Community (4:09:37) (featuring, among others, the testimony of Prof. Mushlin at 56:10).
- Michael Virtanen, Mothers, Experts Plead for Oversight of NY Prison System, Newsday (Dec. 2, 2015).
- Matthew Hamilton, Lawmakers Hear Pitch for More Oversight at DOCCS, Timesunion (Dec. 2, 2015).
- Matthew Hamilton, A Call for Greater Oversight: Hearing Focuses on Lack of Oversight for State’s Prison System, Timesunion (Dec. 2, 2015).
- Assembly Standing Committee on Correction, Notice of Public Hearing: Oversight and Investigations of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) (Albany Dec. 2, 2015).