Thursday, July 12, 2007

George Pataki’s Negative Impact On The Prison System Is Still Felt

By Jeffrey Deskovic


In 1995, the year of George Pataki’s election as Governor, I had been incarcerated for about four years. I remember on election night how I, along with many of the other prisoners housed in the cell block reserved for those who were in the college program, listened via headphones for the results of the election. At that time, televisions were not allowed yet into the cells in Elmira prison, and so therefore listening on
headphones into an intercom system was our way of “watching TV”. As I look back on it now, many of the abnormalities that were part of everyday prison life came to be thought of in terms that gave it the surface level appearance of being normal, even though we mentally knew that it was not. It was the mind’s way of softening things just a little bit so as to protect our sanity. We were hoping, against hope, that Pataki would not win, although we realized that he probably would.

I had been following the race as best I could, given the difficulty of keeping up with current events while in prison. One particular report had stuck out in my mind, which was when Gov. Mario Cuomo stated, during a really tense moment in the campaign, when he had been backed into a corner on the political issue of the death penalty, but still would not back down though he realized the probable consequences
to his career, that ‘he would not sell his soul by supporting the death penalty, in order to win the election’. He further stated that in response to his position, the voters could take the governor’s of-fice away from him if they wanted. I remember that I had cheered for him that
he would take such a moral stance, and that he would not yield to the mob type mentality, unlike the historical figure of Pontias Pilate mentioned in the Bible.

But even as I cheered I felt a sense of foreboding, kind of an inner knowledge that it would wind up costing him the office. Yet because of the probable consequences if Pataki won, I somehow made a way inside of my mind, to go against all logic and say to myself that he would not, and tell other people that in conversation, even while knowing better. Some of the other prisoners, made crazy by the general inhumane conditions of the prison system, embarked down peculiar lines of reasoning that only desperate or abnormal conditions could cause: They hoped that Pataki would win, even though it would mean the death penalty and the probable execution of innocent people. They were willing to have a few people executed, even if that meant that along the way a few innocent people were wrongfully executed if it meant that more people, not the least of which was them, were able to go home earlier.

The death penalty bill had been passed not too long before the election only to be vetoed by Gov. Cuomo, and then come within a few votes of having the veto overridden. Attached to that bill had also been a provision allowing for time off of sentences, referred to in legal jargon as “good time”. The rationale behind “good time” was that it provided an incentive for prisoners to turn their lives around and avail themselves
of educational opportunities by staying out of trouble. Because both good time and the death penalty had been in the proposal together, the prisoners thought that meant that the two proposals would be together again, and that in order for a state to have a death penalty, they would also have to give good time.

George Pataki did indeed win the election, and I remember hearing the news while in my cell, and fearing what would happen next, not only in terms of the death penalty, but also to the prison system in general, and therefore by extension to me since I was in it. As I went to sleep that night, I tried to mentally prepare myself for things to get worse, and worse was what things got.

School And Vocational Trades

While Pataki was governor there was a variety of vocational shops which were systematically phased out of the prison system. When the instructor retired or passed away, the class was closed as well, because they would simply not hire a replacement. Therefore the situation became that at the same time the prison population was swelling because of the systematic parole denials, recategorization of who was eligible for work release, and the lengthier prison sentences imposed, there were also fewer programs for the prisoners to take, thus resulting in more idle time, rather than allowing inmates the opportunity to make the most out of their time, thereby making them less skillful and less prepared for their release thereby decreasing the chances of a successful reintegration into society and a lower recidivism rate.

When I first got to state prison in 1991, everybody was required to take a morning program and a afternoon program. At some point in the early 2000’s prisoners who were arriving at the prison were only being given one program, and were being made to wait six months before being given a second one, which meant that time previously utilized on turning one’s life around and preparation for release, was now being
spent idly in the cell. For the first time, there suddenly became waiting lists to get into school. At the same time, the policy of allowing prisoners to go to recreation when their school class or vocational shop was closed to at least remain out of the cell, was discontinued,
and therefore one’s program being closed meant even more in-cell time, which caused the general level of frustration to go up thus making the prison more volatile. In addition, at some point during that period of time, the policy of not allowing prisoners who had completed one vocational trade to take another trade came into being. I remember when I wanted to take another vocational trade, with the idea of acting on my uncle’s saying ‘you can never know enough things to do, because unanticipated layoffs sometimes occur in ones primary field’ of trying
to take another vocational trade, and I was told that I would not be allowed to do so because of this policy. I had completed a few, of course, but I wanted to continue to prepare myself. The counselor further explained that in light of fewer programs, they wanted to allow those who had not completed a trade to take one. While I understood this policy, the question remained: Why was there such a dearth of programs that
it got to that point? I began to wonder and worry about being able to use my time as productively as possible, for I already considered it to be a waste just being in there, but I wanted to minimize the waste. I would like to further add that the programs that were offered were simply the basics of how things used to be done five years earlier. With the shrinkage of programs, the level of violence increased. I believe
that there was a definite correlation. An idle mind, as the saying goes, is the devil’s playground.


At the time Pataki became Gov., Senator Helms finally succeed in getting the federal government to ban prisoners from receiving Pell Grants for college after having made several attempts. On the state level, Pataki followed suit and banned them from getting TAP. The fallacious
argument advanced forward was that ‘why should prisoners get free college when I make too much money for my children to qualify, and yet cannot afford to send them? It was a fallacy because firstly, no one received financial aid while in prison who would have been ineligible on the outside. The forms were the same, as was the eligibility. Secondly, nationwide the total number of prisoners who went to school on grants was ½ of 1 percent.

Therefore nobody who was free was denied to go to school because a prisoner was going to school. Further, the recidivism rate was much lower for those who had gone to college as opposed to those who had simply taken vocational trades. Therefore college education was, in reality, far from coddling criminals, a powerful future crime fighting tool. Simply put, the reason for this was because prisoners were more qualified to get a meaningful job upon release, and plus the overall level of thinking was elevated, many prisoners, having seen more horizons, and having more hope. They could see a future for themselves not involving crime. Yet, with the source of funding removed, the colleges left.

On a personal note, as a result of his decision, I was not able to graduate with a B.A. degree and thus be that much further ahead, but instead was forced to stop after accumulating 90 credits.

Phone Calls

In prison the only phone calls that the prisoners were allowed to make were collect calls. In 1996 Gov. Pataki entered into a contract with MCI which lasted until 2007 in which over that time span MCI was allowed to overcharge the families and friends of prisoners 630% more
than similar collect calls would have cost someone who was free to make them. The incentive was clear: The Department of Corrections received a 57% kickback from MCI. The success of this diabolical scheme was assured because a monopoly existed: prisoners’ families and friends could either talk to them on the phone, or not. The option of using a different phone company was not available. A lawsuit was
filed on behalf of the prisoners and families, but was fought by the Pataki administration, at one point getting dismissed.

It was not until Eliot Spitzer became Gov. that the practice ceased. During the same time period, MCI adopted the policy of further infringing on the rights of the families and friends by rendering them incapable of accepting collect calls if their regular bill, with their own phone company, reached $100. As I see it, however high a customers bill got with another phone company, it was not MCI’s business. Several families tried to correct this by complaining, but neither complaining to MCI nor to the Department Of Corrections nor anyone higher up availed anybody of anything. There reached a point in time when I had to slow down on the number of phone calls that I made because I was conscious of the bill. I would go weeks and sometimes a month and only make 1 or 2 calls because of the bill, and yet the next time on the phone I would learn of the bill, which in turn made me feel guilty and therefore made me even less inclined to call.

Double Bunking

When Pataki took office, it was at his direction that the Department of Corrections began the practice of double celling. What this meant was that for the first time in New York State, two prisoners would be housed in the same cell. The cells were only built to accommodate one person, and were small even for that purpose. They were no way equipped for two people. Yet, the sole adjustment made was simply to
weld another bed frame on top of the one already in the cell. There were many conflicts and complications arising from having two people, often strangers, suddenly put into the same cell. For example, disputes over when the light was turned off, housing smokers with non-smokers, thefts of food items, one prisoner receiving the mail of another, rummaging through each other’s property, privacy issues, and having two people in the same small area about the size of a small bathroom, (for example many cells in Sing Sing Prison are 3-1/2 x 7 feet) while the other defecated, were among the uncomfortabilities.

Often many of these issues led to violence, and sometimes stabbings and cuttings, because many prisoners would seek to resolve things with violence. Stories circulated throughout the prison system of some people being killed by their cell mate. Ordinarily, when one was locked into one’s cell at night, that at least had meant that normally one could relax a little bit, having the cell bars between himself and the other prisoners; a brief respite from the normally constant vigilance that is needed in order to survive. The double celling was also dangerous for the guards, because it was not unusual for a fight to break out in a cell, necessitating the guards to go in and break it up, which only one guard at
a time could make it through. It was not uncommon for both prisoners to then turn on the guard. It was so dangerous that the officer’s union filed a lawsuit against the practice.

Correction Officers Contract

I remember that sometime between 1999-2002, the contract between the correction officers and the state of New York was up. A power struggle ensued regarding the next contract that would be offered. The issue was that inflation and the cost of living expenses was rising, and
yet the officers were not getting raises to match. As a result, the prison population suffered, because the guards were resorting to the tactic of letting the prisoners out of their cells for recreation later and later, while returning them to their cells at the regularly scheduled time. Thus,
rather than 2 hours and 45 minutes, we sometimes ended up with 2 hours, 1 ½, and sometimes simply 20 minutes; during which time was our only opportunity to use the phone, shower, exercise, engage in recreation, or attempt to stay in touch with the world by watching television. Parole Governor Mario Cuomo believed in giving deserving inmates a second chance.

While he was in office, one could simply do one’s time, stay out of trouble, take educational programs to demonstrate a commitment to a crime-free life, and one would make parole. If denied, then one was certainly going to be paroled at the next parole board appearance. That was fair, after all, the trial judge, being familiar with the facts of cases, were in a position to impose the minimum sentence which the ends of justice would require. When George Pataki became governor, he swore an oath to uphold the laws of the state. That included the statute governing parole. There were press releases news articles, in which he would publicly say, “We must end parole for those convicted of violent crimes,” indicating that he wanted the state legislature to change the laws surrounding parole. The legislature never did that, realizing the wisdom in allowing people the opportunity to turn their live around and contribute to society. Unable to get his way, Pataki then advise the parole board to start automatically denying the parole applications of persons convicted of a violent crime, including those of first time offenders, and even those who had demonstrated a commitment to self improvement who were therefore in good position to contribute
to society. There were a variety of statements made to reporters, anonymously of course, from people in the Pataki administration, to the effect that The Board had been told not to parole those who had been convicted of violent crimes. Similarly, there were public statements
by Parole Board members that the board ‘had gotten the message.”

At one point, Brion Travis, was removed as State Commissioner of Parole and transferred to a job at the State Insurance Department, as the result of having paroling Kathy Boudin, who had been convicted of a felony murder but had served her time, staying out of trouble, and bettering herself. The sentencing judge in Boudin’s case had stated, in assessing the facts, “I see no reason why Boudin should not be release
after her ‘minimum’ if she stays out of trouble.

This sent a clear message to the Parole Board and constituted blatant interference and contravention of the law. To highlight the acknowledged illegality, the Pataki administration, in attempting to cover its hide, officially denied that the transfer of Travis was in any way related to the decision to parole Boudin. Yet, off the record, an official with knowledge of the situation said that the move was a direct
result of that very decision. In addition, in the case Chen vs. Travis, Chen, who was convicted of a violent crime, was actually told, on the record, in a warning by a commissioner, that he had better not get arrested for another crime because then “his father’s money” would
not help him. The reference was specifi-cally to his father’s huge financial contribution to Pataki’s gubernatorial run. As a result of that, the FBI ultimately arrested a commissioner for corruption, and he was found guilty after trial. He kept his mouth shut and never named names, but can anyone doubt that he was acting on orders from the very top?

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