ALBANY — In sentencing an inmate for injuring a female corrections officer, an upstate judge issued an unusual lecture to lawmakers, saying they need to ensure prisons are adequately staffed and have adequate mental health services for the incarcerated population.
According to a transcript of the Jan. 6 proceeding, Oneida County Judge Robert Bauer said his message was also intended for administrators at the Department of Corrections and Community Services and New York’s executive branch of government, headed by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Bauer’s commentary on the state of prison security came at the sentencing of Altereak Witherspoon, who had pleaded guilty to two counts of assault for attacking Officer Adrea Adamczyk at Mid-State Correctional Facility in November 2021.
The officer received 70 stitches for a head wound as well as a broken nose and a concussion as a result of the attack.
Bauer decried what he called a short staffing situation that has made prisons more dangerous.
“The people in our Legislature ought to provide better mental health services to keep people like you (Witherspoon) from hurting themselves and the good people that work in corrections,” the judge commented as he sentenced Witherspoon to one year in county jail, plus five years of post-release supervision.
“This situation disgusts me, it disturbs me, and I see it too often,” Bauer said from the bench. “I’m hopeful these words travel beyond this courtroom, and the folks that have some power to do something about it, do something about it.”
The judge’s commentary was seized upon by the New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association, the union for corrections officers. For months, it has argued assaults on prison staffers have increased since April 1, when a law restricting the use of disciplinary housing units for inmates was implemented.
In a statement, Bryan Hluska, central region vice president for NYSCOPA, said: “I applaud Judge Bauer for his candor and hope that our state leaders are listening. Certain individuals in the incarcerated community are now more emboldened than ever due to lenient policies like HALT which were championed by the New York State Legislature. Predators like this inmate are taking full advantage of the lack of consequences and are creating chaos and unprecedented levels of violence.”
Advocates for prisoners and the New York Civil Liberties pushed for the curtailment of so-called special housing units, saying they amounted to solitary confinement and were a form of cruel and unusual punishment that left inmates with mental scars.
The champions of inmate rights have also disputed NYSCOPBA’s claim that a rise in assaults on corrections officers is linked to the HALT measure.
Meanwhile, the state prison agency, in a statement released by its spokesman, Thomas Mailey, said: “The safety and well-being of staff and incarcerated individuals is our top priority. The Department has zero tolerance for violence within our facilities and anyone engaged in misconduct will be disciplined, and if warranted, incidents will be referred for outside prosecution.”
As for the staffing concern raised by the judge, Mailey said: “DOCCS, like many law enforcement agencies across the country, is experiencing challenges in its recruiting of security staff. However, system-wide, the Department has been able to maintain a ratio of 1 security staff for every 1.9 incarcerated individuals, among the best ratios in the country. The Department’s Training Academy is currently conducting successive Correction Officer Trainee Recruit classes.”
Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Clinton County, a former corrections officer who opposed the HALT legislation, welcomed the judge’s concerns about the welfare of those working behind bars.
“Now we have a judge who sees how the erosion of the disciplinary system within correctional facilities can result in serious injuries to our hard-working men and women staffing those facilities,” Jones told CNHI. “I hope more people begin sounding the alarm on this because it’s a serious issue.”
Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, a legislative ally of NYSCOPBA, said he hopes Bauer’s commentary will prompt a reconsideration of the HALT legislation.
“It absolutely astounds me that the executive and the Legislature have refused to admit that assaults in our prisons, both on inmates and on staff, have gone up since HALT was passed,” Stec said. “To ignore this problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Citing data compiled by DOCCS, NYSCOPBA reported that 2022 was a record year in New York prisons for assaults by inmates on staff and assaults by inmates on inmates. Inmate on staff assaults increased by 33% in just one year, the union noted.
Witherspoon, 33, has been transferred to maximum-security Five Points Correctional Facility in Seneca County.
The officer who was stomped by Witherspoon has been unable to return to work, the union reported.