By: Eliza Fawcett
In 1985, Jeanne Thelwell, a young lawyer from New York City, arrived in Albany to start work as a commissioner for the State Commission of Correction. She was excited, thinking she’d joined a hard-hitting agency dedicated to righting wrongs in prisons and jails.
The commission, abbreviated as scoc, was an independent state body tasked with keeping correctional facilities safe and humane. As one of its three full-time commissioners, Thelwell traveled across New York visiting state prisons and county jails, sometimes carrying out surprise inspections.
She soon grew disillusioned. Politics seeped into scoc’s work and organizing structure, curtailing its authority and impact. The commission was “a pretty pedestrian place,” she said, with a pattern of appointments that included “whatever political connection the governor wanted as the chair.”
“It can’t do the job and I don’t know if it ever did,” Thelwell, now 72, told New York Focus.
Though robust jail oversight is rare nationwide, scoc has unusually wide-ranging power to keep facilities in check. Inspectors can visit any correctional facility, obtain information from any employee, and examine any document or medical record. scoc can issue subpoenas and obtain state Supreme Court orders. If a facility is found to be unsafe, unsanitary, or otherwise out-of-compliance, scoc can shut it down.
The commission rarely deploys its full arsenal, even against facilities caught with egregious violations. Amid staffing reductions in the 1990s, scoc stopped regularly inspecting prisons, neglecting one of its key statutory duties. More recently, it has failed to stem assaults and deaths in some of the state’s most dangerous jails. Commissioners tend to be former county sheriffs or jail administrators, emerging from the same systems that they’re supposed to hold to account.
A New York Focus review of more than 200 scoc jail inspection reports from 2018 to 2023 reveals that while some issues in jail are quickly fixed, other major problems — like denying incarcerated people their exercise time, leaving ventilation systems dirty, and lumping people of different security risk levels together — drag on for years.
“It’s horrible that you actually have the legislation and you have the mandate, and it’s just not being carried out,” Michael Mushlin, an emeritus professor at Pace University’s law school and expert on correctional oversight, said of scoc’s neglect of prisons. “I don’t know of any place in the United States that you can quite say that about.”
“The State Commission of Correction looks really good on paper, but it doesn’t do most of the things that it says it does.”
The commission said in a statement that it “takes its responsibility to ensure the safe operation of local and state correctional facilities seriously.”
Despite the importance of its work, scoc avoids public scrutiny. Only the first few minutes of its monthly meetings are made publicly available. scoc does not voluntarily release full jail inspection reports. It took New York Focus hundreds of records requests to obtain them.
While the state government has called attention to scoc’s deficiencies for decades, little has changed. A 1975 state investigation reported that the commissioners had failed to fulfill their duties; by 2008, a state report found scoc “in critical need of new direction and institutional reform.” Now, state legislators are mounting renewed efforts to make scoc live up to its mandate, including by expanding the number of commissioners.
In the meantime, millions of people have cycled through New York jails and prisons, vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse from guards and sheriffs left to their own devices.
Thelwell was appalled to learn that scoc no longer regularly inspects prisons. Her concern over the commission’s reluctance to wield its authority on Rikers Island — already an issue during her tenure — has deepened.
“Over the last few years, I’ve been sitting here going, ‘Where’s the commission?’” she said. “People are dying at Rikers, and what’s the commission got to say about this?”
THE ROUGHLY 50,000 people currently held in New York state prisons and county jails exist in the gap between scoc’s vested power and how it chooses to use it.
In a 2018 report detailing the worst jails in the state, scoc decried widespread leadership failures, regulatory violations, and “unabated harm” to staff and incarcerated people at Rikers Island facilities. The report concluded: “it is now time for the Commission to examine steps to expeditiously close Rikers and to ensure that the constitutional rights of inmates and staff are protected.”
Five years later, Rikers remains open, chaotic, and deadly.
In the same report, scoc called out the Erie County Sheriff’s Office for failing to report multiple suicide attempts by incarcerated people from 2013 to 2015. It also found that “managerial shortcomings” had contributed to escapes, assaults, and deaths at the county’s two jails. Under the leadership of former Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard, 32 people died in the facilities from 2005 to 2021. The death toll has only continued to climb.
Recent New York Focus investigations have detailed how scoc has allowed county jails to skirt new solitary confinement regulations and how its grievance system offers incarcerated people little recourse for poor conditions or mistreatment.
“I don’t think that they are really a force for accountability,” said James Bogin, a senior supervising attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York. “They do their death investigations. They do produce minimum standards for local jails. And I can’t really think of anything else that they do that’s of any value.”
scoc’s primary role is to set standards and inspect correctional facilities for compliance — an immense job in a state with more than a hundred jails and prisons. Although scoc is statutorily responsible for overseeing state prisons, the commission usually only visits them to investigate deaths.
Its jail inspections are often lacking, too. A state audit published in 2008 found that scoc didn’t always inspect jails on schedule or cover all of the required standards in a visit. When inspectors identified “significant violations,” scoc didn’t always follow up to ensure compliance.
Some issues persist for years. In Onondaga County, scoc has spent at least six years in a back-and-forth with the Syracuse jail over its “unacceptable” practice of housing incarcerated people with the highest and lowest security risk levels together, according to inspection reports. The commission has identified the same issue for years at the Rockland County jail, and despite a 2022 warning that scoc could take “further action,” this year’s inspection found that the violation continues. At the Dutchess County jail, scoc found in January that staff were keeping inconsistent records when they’d been ordered to provide additional supervision for incarcerated people. The violation, first identified in 2018, remains “open,” scoc wrote, “pending review during the next site visit.”
“The New York State Commission of Correction looks really good on paper, but I think, in practice, it doesn’t do most of the things that it says it does,” said Michele Deitch, a correctional oversight expert and director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.
“There was the possibility that you really could have effective oversight of New York state prisons. That was a failure.”
Resources explain part of the issue. Despite its vast mandate, scoc works on a shoestring budget, with a small staff. In 2022, scoc had 36 employees, most of whom worked as jail inspectors or as specialized nurses. The commission was budgeted $3.4 million this year — less than half a percent of the state’s $10 billion public safety and criminal justice budget.
Yet the commission seems to view itself less as an independent ombudsman and more as a corrections-support agency. In its 2022 annual report, scoc described itself as a “small, specialized criminal justice service agency supporting the statewide correctional community, working on behalf of the Governor to professionalize and enhance the quality of the correctional system in New York.”
The commission’s leadership has three jobs: a chairman, a chair of a council that reviews grievances, and a chair of a board that reviews deaths. The two current commissioners have law enforcement and corrections backgrounds: Allen Riley, the chairman, is a former Madison County sheriff, and Yolanda Canty, in charge of grievance reviews, is a former bureau chief for the New York City Department of Correction. The final commission position — the head of the Medical Review Board — has been vacant for months.
scoc declined New York Focus’s request to interview Riley.
“Staff work diligently to identify violations of state laws, regulations and minimum standards that jeopardize facility security and endanger the safety and well-being of incarcerated individuals, staff and visitors, and work with facilities to correct those deficiencies,” scoc said in a statement. “The Commission uses all the tools at our disposal — providing technical assistance so local facilities can correct deficiencies, issuing directives, seeking judicial intervention and securing court-directed monitoring — so facilities can achieve and maintain compliance.”
Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the nonprofit prison oversight group Correctional Association of New York, or cany, said that scoc plays an “important role” in the review of deaths in prisons and in setting minimum standards for jails. But the commission, like cany, needs “more resources in order to provide more comprehensive kinds of inspections and audits.”
“They have their hands full with jails,” she said. “It’s a big state and a very complex system.”
Yet to some criminal justice experts and reform advocates, scoc isn’t just overburdened, but a driving force behind mass incarceration in the state.
scoc oversees jail construction, repair, capacity, and staffing levels, and some observers think they overshoot. Researchers with the Vera Institute of Justice found that New York jails are significantly overstaffed, with twice as many officers per detainee as the national average. That’s driven by scoc’s staffing regulations, which are tied to jails’ maximum capacities rather than their actual populations.
In the early 2000s, the Tompkins County legislature wanted to expand Ithaca’s overcrowded jail to 104 beds. But scoc would not approve anything less than a 136-bed plan.
“The option they offer us now is a very big jail or nothing,” the chair of the county’s legislature said at the time. The debate continued for years, as Tompkins County leaders explored alternatives to incarceration and pushed back against state pressure to undertake a costly expansion.
scoc should function as a “checks and balances” system on county jails, said Paula Ioanide, a researcher and founder of Decarcerate Tompkins County. “But you can’t dictate to a county to spend its own taxpayer money to build a jail, which is essentially what’s happening all over the place.”
“Correctional projects are rarely popular, but state law requires counties to operate correctional facilities,” scoc said in a statement. “The decision to construct a new facility lies solely with county government officials; it is the Commission’s responsibility to ensure that proposal complies with state laws, regulations and minimum standards.”
FIFTY YEARS AGO, state lawmakers had the opportunity to turn scoc into a powerful, reform-minded oversight agency.
In 1975, a state investigation produced a damning report on scoc. The commissioners had “failed to fulfill their statutory obligations,” and meeting minutes revealed “an indifference toward their jobs and responsibilities.” The agency had never enforced standards using state Supreme Court orders.
Months later, Democratic Governor Hugh L. Carey signed a bill restructuring the commission and nominated Herman Schwartz as scoc’s first full-time chairman. A law professor who had served as a negotiator during the 1971 Attica prison riot, Schwartz told The New York Times that he envisioned scoc as an “ombudsman with teeth.”
A majority-Republican senate committee rejected his nomination. Schwartz, one lawmaker said, had shown “a propensity toward an inmate’s point of view above and beyond his position” as a commissioner, including by hiring three formerly incarcerated people as prison investigators.
“Herman might have made New York jails and prisons a model for the nation,” the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in 2019. “But he was stopped at the launching stage by political forces opposed to reform.”
The rejection had lasting consequences.
“There was the possibility that you really could have effective oversight of New York state prisons,” Mushlin, the correctional oversight expert, said. “And that was a failure. It didn’t happen, and after that, it never happened.”
“I don’t think that they are really a force for accountability.”
By the time Dawn Ferrer arrived at the commission in the late 1980s, she found it to be a demanding place. A facility inspector, she traveled throughout New York, touring jails, reading log books, and talking to incarcerated people and jail staff. New York’s jail incarceration rate was increasing dramatically and many facilities were overcrowded.
Ferrer said she was proud of her work at scoc, where she stayed through the late 1990s. But she was one of the few women in an organization that functioned like a “good old boy network.” Sometimes, commissioners’ personal connections to county sheriffs stood in the way of her work.
“I did feel politics played into it more than it should have,” said Ferrer, now 60, recalling at least one instance in which a county jail with many violations should have been closed, but wasn’t.
“If we could do exactly what we’re supposed to be doing,” she added, “I think we could be effective. But I didn’t really feel like that was the case back then.”
The issues mounted. A state audit published in 2008 reproached scoc for “not fulfilling its responsibilities for overseeing State correctional facilities.” scoc had also reduced the scope of jail inspections, addressing regulations across years, rather than all at once, according to the audit. The same year, a state inspector general report found that officials at the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services had received “many written and oral complaints from sheriffs’ offices and other local government officials” about scoc staff and were concerned that “scoc was not fulfilling its statutory mission.”
SCOC HAS weathered the criticism for decades. Efforts to reimagine it have come and gone. But some lawmakers in Albany are taking another shot at reform, eager for a commission that truly holds prisons and jails to account.
State Senator Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the corrections committee, sponsors a bill that would increase the number of commissioners from three to nine. The legislation, which she hopes to pass in the upcoming legislative session, would require commissioners to reflect a diversity of backgrounds, including in public health, behavioral healthcare, prisoner’s rights litigation, and personal experiences of incarceration. (A previous version of the bill would have also tied scoc’s budget to that of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, increasing the commission’s budget from a few million to about $62 million.)
“We want more accountability from the scoc, and we also want it to be expanded so it can actually be effective,” Salazar said.
Earlier this year, Governor Kathy Hochul nominated Terrence Moran, a career scoc employee, for the open commissioner position. But he made a disappointing appearance before a senate committee and lawmakers turned him down — a rarity in New York government.
“There is a correctional industrial complex that has existed for decades and decades in the state,” said state Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, the chair of the judiciary committee and a Manhattan Democrat. “I see the governor trying to break its grip. But she needs to look outside of the usual suspects for nominees in order to achieve true reform.”
“People are dying at Rikers, and what’s the commission got to say about this?”
There are other efforts to increase accountability and visibility of correctional facilities. One proposed bill would allow county legislators, as well as the staff of state lawmakers, to visit local correctional facilities. Another would create a correctional ombudsman, tasked with inspecting correctional facilities and publicly reporting findings.
Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, a Brooklyn Democrat who sponsors the chamber’s version of Salazar’s scoc bill, said she hopes these legislative efforts will increase public awareness of the commission, which has largely retreated into the shadows.
“It’s important that every person in a community knows who the lifeguard is,” Gallagher said. “That’s what an oversight agency is supposed to be. If you don’t know that that exists, then you’re swimming at your own risk.”