George Pataki’s Negative Impact On The Prison System Is Still Felt
By Jeffrey Deskovic
The Death Penalty
George Pataki wasted no time getting the Death Penalty passed. In 1995 at his urging, the Legislature, still feeling the heat of the “hot button” topic the death penalty had become - so much so - that it decided the gubernatorial race, again passed the death penalty. And this
time, with Pataki in office, it was signed into law. His initiative proved costly: from 1995 to 2004, New York State spent $200 million dollars and executed nobody, thus wasting financial resources that could have been better spent on social programs and crime prevention.
While he passed the death penalty, he certainly made clear, very quickly, that there would be no good time bill, which was a measure which would have provided incentive and hope for the inmates, that had long been championed by Mario Cuomo. Thanks to Pataki’s death penalty measure, New York has come frighteningly close to executing someone who was innocent, when Rochester Prosecutors attempted to indict
Doug Warney for 1st degree murder, for the purpose of being able to seek the death penalty. Warney was wrongfully convicted of 2nd degree murder based on a false confession and served 10 years, before being cleared by DNA. Fortunately for him, the grand jury only indicted
him for second degree murder.
When Pataki became Governor he built even more prisons, many of them built specifically as part of the special housing units, in which prisoners would be held with little time at all out of their cells, with less access to showers, less recreation, no phone access, often double-
celled with other prisoners who had committed violent acts. As might well be imagined, this regime led to more violence at a time when Pataki remained opposed to spending money on therapeutic and educational programs.
When George Pataki became Governor, he altered the criteria by which inmates could become eligible for work release. Work release had been a program in which prisoners were able to work in the community for up to 14 hours, and then returned to their correctional facility. They
were thus able to support themselves, send money to their families, and pay taxes, rather than being a burden to taxpayers. It was a program midway between prison and home, and for many inmates it paved the way for a better transition. When Pataki got into office, he disallowed all those who had been convicted of a violent crime to participate in the program. That was a great disservice to the community because
the better prepared to reenter society inmates were, the more likely they would experience a successful transition. I remember being in the college program and overhearing one of the college administrators say on the phone, “Not only have the criteria been changed by executive order, but even those who are in the program successfully are being rounded up and returned to prison.
Sex Offender Program
With Pataki in office, Department of Corrections Commissioner Goord felt free to push around the prisoners, knowing full well that the Governor didn’t care about them, and had built his career around taking things from them, and generally making their lives more difficult, just because he could. In 2002 one example of this was the State’s changing of Correction Department directives with respect to the Sex Offender
Program. Previously, if one was imprisoned for a sex offense, he could take the sex offender program without admitting guilt. What changed under Pataki, however, was that the Department was now taking an all-out approach, shoving the program down inmates’ throats. I, along
with other prisoners, was warned that if I did not take the program I would not have much of a chance before the Parole Board, and that I would not be allowed to participate in the family reunion program, which was designed to strengthen and maintain family ties by enabling
prisoners and their families, and/or spouses to spend a few days in a trailer located on prison grounds. Those who were appealing their cases were allowed to be given an exception to having to complete the program before participating, in recognition of ongoing litigation, and the possibility of innocence.
What sense would it make, after all, for someone who was innocent to take the program? Under the new rules, that exception was eliminated. Also eliminated was the former procedure of allowing prisoners to take the program for parole purposes while not admitting guilt. From
Pataki forward, in order to take the program, one would have to admit guilt to the instructors, and then in front of the class, and then again, in writing, giving full details. Failure to do so was automatic grounds for dismissal from the program. These rules totally disregarded the idea that the innocent are sometimes wrongfully convicted of sex offenses, thereby placing prisoners in the position of having to lie to have a chance at freedom, or to maintain their innocence at the cost of possible freedom. It also placed a strain on spousal relationships wherein the couples were used to having the visits for conjugal purposes. I can remember one man’s direct appeal that had not yet been decided, and yet the Department of Corrections had given the fact no consideration, and neither did the court. These rules personally affected me because it prevented me from having a family visit in the trailers, and also prevented me from applying to Honor Block, where a few prisoners had it a little bit easier by being given a little bit more recreation and the option of not having to go to the same rec area as the general population.
That option enabled inmates to get away from being in the same area as a lot of the violence, and granted them more access to showers, refrigerators and stoves. While that might not seem like much to think about now, while I was incarcerated the standard of living was considered much higher for those in Honor Block.
My declining to participate in the program also resulted in my being housed in Elmira Prison for a much longer period of time than I might have despite having stayed out of trouble. It also prevented my transfer to a prison closer to home. Prior to Pataki, one could simply stay out of trouble and earm a transfer closer to facilitate family visits. This affected me because, as time went on, the long trips wore down my mother, along with her health, resulting in my receiving fewer and fewer visits.
Sex Offender Civil Commitment
I lived in fear that the Civil Commitment Bill would be passed. Every year Pataki would call on the state legislators to pass civil confinement laws, that would allow the state to continue to keep people in custody even after their sentence was complete. The way it worked prisoners would be examined by a couple of psychologists and, if certi-fied as a future danger, they could then be kept in a mental hospital, being reviewed every year or two for continued dangerousness. I knew from my studies that one of the factors in determining whether somebody was dangerous was whether they had undergone treatment, and, treatment entailed admitting guilt. I personally felt fear because I realized
that the crime for which I was imprisoned was a sex crime, and that, because I would not admit guilt, I would be labeled as dangerous and likely would be imprisoned in a mental hospital. I knew that sex offenders were easy political targets who legislators could use to create
a climate of panic. I also realized that the public did not fully understand the issues or the pitfalls, a situation deliberately perpetuated by some politicians.
It was not hard to imagine that the law would be passed, and I was very fearful that innocent people, including myself, would get caught up in it. Every year, when Pataki would revisit the subject, I would become frightened, and would remain so for quite a while. Despite its failure to pass in any given year, I knew that Pataki would continue to pursue it, and so the danger never ceased and loomed large over my head.
Under Gov. Spitzer the law has passed, and I now wonder how many innocent people have finished their unjust sentences and yet cannot go home. Instead being committed to mental hospitals, having no means of clearing themselves for lack of legal representation, or definitive DNA evidence. Because DNA evidence is only available in 10 percent of all serious felony cases, and there is nowhere near the legal resources needed by all those pleading innocent, this is no remote possibility. In addition, the idea of being denied freedom based on what
somebody thinks that you will do, or not do, in the future is silly. No one knows what anybody will do in the future, no one has a crystal ball. Additionally, the problem of those who are innocent being caught up in its web remains.
Libby Pataki’s Suggestion
In the first couple of weeks following my release, after spending the initial couple of days with my family in Upstate New York, I returned to Westchester County at the first opportunity, realizing that it was too rural where my familiy now lives, to be able to rebuild my life. My mind was still very much clouded, and I was not adjusted well at all. In addition, since I was released with nothing but the clothing on my back, I had tremendous financial pressure on me. I was painfully aware that the goodwill of other people in allowing me to have meals with them could not last indefinitely, and that I would not be able to continue to stay with other people. At the same time I knew that I was not in any shape mentally to work yet.
I had been informed that the standard fee for an attorney to represent me in a lawsuit against the state would be one third of any monies awarded. That seemed like an awful lot to me, particularly since, before the one third was paid, I would have to pay the court costs, which was estimated at between $75,000 to $125,000. I also knew that the average time before one might actually receive any compensation was
between 2-7 years, and that I needed money as soon as possible. There was a priest at The Assumption Church in Peekskill that I knew
from the days when I had attended the church in my youth and the adjoining school. During a conversation with him I learned that he knew George Pataki personally. Out of desperation, I asked him if he could approach the Governor on my behalf, in an attempt to get the State to compensate me on its own, voluntarily, in light of the wrong that was done to me. I was hoping that my financial predicament might be immediately solved and that I might have money to live off of, and not have to pay lawyers anything. At the same time I believed I would be saving the State some money by accepting less than they would otherwise potentially have to pay.
The priest said that he would try and was somewhat hopeful, but could not promise anything. I, too, was hopeful, and pleased with the compromise I had thought of, if only naively, and viewed as a win/win for everybody. As I reflect now, I was really desperate. The priest made a few attempts on my behalf but told me that Pataki said it would involve too much money. He was not happy, and told me he was going to try again, this time going through Pataki’s wife Libby. However, when he contacted me again, he related that when he explained
everything to her, detailing my general destitute condition, including the fact I had no place to live, Mrs. Pataki replied “Let him go to Catholic Charities.”
When the priest told Mrs. Pataki “This is not a matter of charity,” and that I had been wronged, she remained steadfast against any aid to me. I could tell by the look on his face that he was both frustrated and saddened that he could make no headway on this issue, knowing full well my circumstances.
George Pataki did not make decisions with the best interest of New Yorkers in mind with respect to the prison system, keeping in mind the need for inmate rehabilitation in order to prevent future crimes.
Instead, he set the stage for anger and rage, and the returning of ill-prepared prisoners to society in a condition worse than when they entered prison. On a personal level, he made my already difficult time in prison for a crime I had not committed, even worse than it had to be.