It comes as a surprise to many to learn that, after decades of rapid growth, there are fewer prisons in New York State.  Twelve have been closed in the last nine years.

An equally astonishing fact is that one of the main reasons for that is that rate of people returning for new felonies within three years after release has declined from 28% to 10.7%. That has meant that the adult prison population has declined from 71,538 in December 1999 to 55,893 on February first!

We have become so accustomed to the bad news of building new prisons; population rising; “nothing works,” that it is hard even to imagine everything going in a good direction. However, these are hard facts; this is not the dreamy musings of some idealistic prison reformer.

Why? There are many reasons. There is no single cause for this good news. One is the reform of the Rockefeller Drug laws. Though there was no mass exodus as a result, the improved sentencing guidelines have certainly helped. And the increased public awareness that our drug problems will not be solved by any new “war on drugs,” but by the painstaking work of caring for one individual after another who would like to live free of addiction and has access to the counseling and Twelve Step which make that freedom possible.

Equally important are the Family Visits. I was grilled on the issue by the Senate Committee on Crime and Correction when I was confirmed as Chairman of the Commission on Correction. I argued strongly in favor of going forward with the “trailer visits” in which a person in prison can have a visit, inside the walls, with one or more family members for approximately a full day. They visit, cook meals, play games, sleep under the same roof and generally duplicate life as a family on the outside as much as possible. Obviously the sexual dimension is of enormous importance. But in my experience, it is also huge to be able to interact freely with one’s children. Many people in prison have looked me hard in the eye and said, “I will do ANYTHING when I am released, to stay with my children! I will not disappear the way my father did.” And they mean it. In re-entry it is the convincing argument against going back to drugs or doing anything illegal: “You going back upstate and leave your children?!” So there is no question in my mind that the family visits play a crucial role in the declining recidivist rate. It is astonishing that only four other states in the USA have similar family visits!

When I first started going inside, in 1963, all the discipline was by “goon squad.” If a prisoner was seen as having an attitude, or seemed to be threatening, staff waited until after 4:00, when everyone was locked in (no afternoon or evening programs). Then a group of four to six officers would come to his cell, beat him badly and leave him locked in. Now there are procedures top be followed: charges are brought and, with different “tier levels” for gravity of offense, the person may be put in keep lock (confined to his/her cell or cubicle) or in segregation (confined in a Special Housing Unit). It is an opportunity for supervisory staff to check the attitude of the complaining officer and caution him if it seems he is trigger-happy. There are also Inmate Grievance Committees in which people can bring complaints against staff or conditions. Dismissed, with some reason as “kangaroo courts,” people inside say that they have an effect even if they are not perfect. Such committees were unthinkable in 1963.

Law Libraries now exist in every prison. And there are people inside who help others research material for their cases. As important as the substance of complaints brought is the benefit of people learning about process, learning that there are two sides to the justice system, that they are not without recourse.

There are three different anger management programs in prison, all essentially the same, but with quite different approaches.

There are drug treatment programs which had quite a bad reputation when they first started in the 1970’s, but now have matured with excellent results.

There are college programs like The Bard Prison Initiative, Hudson Link and Mercy College. Beyond the numbers directly enrolled in their classes, they have changed the lives of many, even illiterate prisoners, facing long sentences who have decided that they have enough time to get a GED and go all the way to college. And they have done so!

Back in the 1970’s, there were virtually no officers who were not white. Thanks to aggressive affirmative action hiring by Commissioner Benjamin Ward (the real hero of much of this story), that is now changed and all facilities have at least some multi-racial staff. This makes incalculable difference even though officers can be gratuitously cruel regardless of race.

Introduction of programs like my own Healing Communities Network program in 1979 have also helped people stay out of prison. Each is unique, but just the fact of people coming in from the outside and then, once people are released, being there for them to help with the transition makes all the difference. Fortune Society and the Osborne Association, to mention only two, have grown in numbers and effectiveness over the last thirty years.

Both The Correctional Association  (private) and the New York State Commission of Correction (public) were greatly strengthened by the public outrage over Attica. They each functioned as monitors of the prison system and many of the changes listed above were made more robust because these two agencies were effective watch dogs.

There is more to the full picture. I hope that New Yorkers will learn more and be proud. Other states might also be inspired to do more because everyone wants to save money. It is the one area where liberals and conservatives can come together for improvement. It turned out that “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” was  more expensive than had been anticipated.

There continue to be individual cruel acts of excess use of force. We still lock up too many for too long, a problem of our laws, not our prison system. We have a long way to go, but we are finally headed in the right direction!

Stephen Chinlund, former Chairman of the Commission of Correction of NYS; Founder of the Healing Communities Network Program

Author of Prison Transformations: The System, the People Inside and Me (2009)