When will Governor Cuomo act to end racism in his corrections department?
In 2016, the New York Times published an investigation finding that “racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.” Black people in prison reported slurs, racist language, and violent threats from overwhelmingly white corrections staff. The racism also took measurable forms. In a prison system where Black people are severely overrepresented after front-end disparities in arrests, conviction, and sentencing, they are then disproportionately subject to internal prison discipline, namely solitary confinement, and far less likely to be released on parole. [Michael Schwartz, Michael Winerip, and Robert Gebeloff / New York Times]
The Times reviewed tens of thousands of disciplinary cases—write-ups alleging infractions from corrections officers which are then adjudicated by corrections staff—and found that, “[i]n most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites—in some cases twice as often.” In Clinton Correctional Facility, where only one out of 998 corrections officers was Black, Black incarcerated people were nearly four times as likely as white people to be sent to solitary confinement. [Michael Schwartz, Michael Winerip, and Robert Gebeloff / New York Times]
Black people also faced diminished chances of release from prison. The Times analyzed thousands of parole decisions and found that Black and Latinx men were much less likely to be released at their first parole hearings than white men. The disparities in prison discipline contributed to this, with disciplinary records influencing release decisions. [Michael Schwartz, Michael Winerip, and Robert Gebeloff / New York Times]
The 2016 investigation powerfully presented what people in prison and those familiar with the system had known for a long time: Racism in the state’s prison system affected people’s safety and chances at freedom and there was little check on it. [Correctional Association of New York]
It also prompted an immediate response from Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Just hours after revelations of pervasive racial bias by prison guards in New York State were published last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered a statewide inquiry,” the Times reported the next day. The details of that order prompted some skepticism—the investigation was to be conducted by the state inspector general’s office, whose staff numbers just over 100, and which had previously taken a year to look into a single prison. But Cuomo’s administration was adamant that it would take this investigation seriously. Alphonso David, Cuomo’s chief counsel, told the Times that, “As a black man, I’m not going to look the other way if the evidence shows that the corrections department is applying discipline disproportionately to black and Latino men.” [Michael Winerip and Michael Schwartz / New York Times]
With reports of racial disparities in the use of solitary across the country, it appeared that New York had the chance to take the lead to address racism in its system. Speaking about a 2016 study from the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School, Professor Judith Resnik, one of the authors, told The Atlantic: “A question that is raised by the data and not answered by the data is: Why are people being put in, [and] how constant across—even within a jurisdiction—are the sanctions? Are you worried that the general social mechanisms that over-incarcerate people of color or that over-discipline young boys are going to be at work in prison? The answer from our data is yes, you should worry, now go and find out more.” It also appeared that for New York, as with some other states, the “significant racial imbalance” between staff and incarcerated people contributed to the disparities in punishment. [Juleyka Lantigua-Williams / The Atlantic]
Yet, “[n]early two years after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered an investigation into racial bias in New York prisons, no findings or recommendations have been released by the state inspector general,” the Times reported this month, nine days before New York’s primaries. A spokesperson for Cuomo told the paper that the corrections department was cooperating with the investigation and they expected it to be complete “in the very near future.” [Tyler Pager / New York Times]
Last week, the editorial board of the Buffalo Times voiced a widespread reaction to that tepid promise, calling two years “artificially long” and questioning the reasons for the delay. “Perhaps there are reasons it is taking so long. We hope the election calendar isn’t among them,” it said. “The Times report pierced the walls of the system to document official mistreatment…With no reason to question the report, it is plain that this is the time – perhaps the only time for years – when this systemic misuse of power can be analyzed and corrected.” [Editorial Board / Buffalo News]
The questions of timing cannot be delinked from Cuomo’s political ambitions. During her primary campaign to unseat the governor, Cynthia Nixon pledged to end solitary confinement through executive action and to support the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, legislation that would eliminate long-term solitary in New York. She also promised to expand on the “marginal improvements” to the parole process under Cuomo. Nixon’s challenge forced Cuomo to swerve left on a number of issues, including marijuana legalization and voting rights for people on parole. After his primary victory, Cuomo expanded on a favored theme, saying, “You cannot have the word progressive without progress,” and, “I am progressive, I deliver progressive results.” Now, with his primary victory secure, facing a little-known challenger in the November election, and any presidential campaign several years away, the question is whether Cuomo will turn that conviction about delivering results toward ending racism in his corrections department.