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NYS needs a new start on its prisons



New York State is at a critical juncture to transform a prison system plagued by decades of systemic injustices, human rights violations, and counterproductive policies. The appointment of a new commissioner for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) presents a rare and pivotal opportunity to either drive meaningful change or continue the cycle of abuse and misconduct that has long tarnished this agency. We must ensure the right leadership is chosen to champion the reform our prison system so desperately needs.

Regrettably, elevating the current acting commissioner, Daniel F. Martuscello, to the permanent leadership of DOCCS, would represent an unacceptable embrace of the toxic status quo. Under Martuscello’s tenure, New York’s prisons have accumulated a shameful litany of legal settlements and injustices that expose an institution in crisis.

DOCCS has paid out tens of millions to settle claims of rampant guard-on-incarcerated people violence, waterboarding and brutalizing incarcerated people, unjustifiable punishment of incarcerated people based on faulty drug tests, and unabated use of torturous solitary confinement and the warehousing of mentally ill individuals in isolation despite legislative bans under the HALT Solitary Confinement Law — leading to multiple class-action lawsuits by civil liberties groups.

The agency’s reputation has been further tarnished by preventable deaths of incarcerated individuals due to medical neglect and outright murders by prison guards without accountability. Even fundamental disability rights enshrined in federal law have been violated under Martuscello’s leadership.

Furthermore, Martuscello’s tenure as acting commissioner is marred by the implementation of a new and unprecedented family care package ban. This ill-conceived policy not only deprives individuals in custody of essential items like fresh fruits and vegetables, but also imposes undue financial burdens on their families.

Martuscello’s decision to adopt a new policy suspending prison visits for any rule violation, even for reasons unrelated to visit infractions, underscores the pressing need for reforms that prioritize empathy and support for incarcerated individuals. Research has shown that children of incarcerated parents are significantly more likely to encounter disciplinary issues in school when contact is disrupted, and that family bonding while incarcerated reduces violence in prisons and recidivism rates.

Martuscello’s leadership has also worsened a culture of racism, with racial disparities at even more egregious rates under his leadership as acting commissioner, disproportionately affecting Black and Latino individuals who receive harsher punishments and inferior job and housing assignments compared to their white counterparts. 

As deputy commissioner of administrative services, Martuscello upheld a bloated $3 billion-plus prison budget (the second largest in the country) despite a significant reduction in the prison population. Throughout his 27 years in DOCCS, more than 50% of people released return to prison within three years, putting New York among the states with the worst recidivism rates in the nation.

Additionally, despite substantial evidence that corrections officers engage in smuggling contraband like drugs, weapons, and other items for cash, Martuscello has declined to address this issue by instituting mandatory body scanning for all prison staff, as he has done for visitors.

As executive deputy commissioner and acting commissioner, Martuscello failed to implement meaningful reforms. He continued illegal solitary confinement, adopted harmful package and visiting policies, allowed baseless disciplinary infractions, neglected incentives for good behavior, and ignored the need to reform medical parole, leaving terminally ill incarcerated individuals to die in prison

Martuscello’s nomination represents an endorsement of abusive policies within DOCCS. His track record is marred by instances of humanitarian abuses, obstruction of court orders, and a failure to comply with the law, all of which have led to significant human and financial costs. These glaring issues make him ill-suited to spearhead the transformative changes urgently needed within DOCCS.

Gov. Hochul must nominate — and the state Senate must confirm — a commissioner who places a high priority on human dignity, justice, and redemption. Ideally, this individual should not be someone entrenched in an abusive bureaucracy and instead someone committed to meaningful reform.

The next DOCCS commissioner will not only shape the future direction of the corrections system but also directly impact the lives of countless individuals within the state prison system. Martuscello is clearly not the right choice for this pivotal role.

Dixon was incarcerated in New York State prisons for 32 years and is the deputy director at the Parole Preparation Project.

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