Letter from the Director

Print Friendly

From time to time I’m asked – often, actually, by journalists who have covered Albany politics for several years or more – how my colleagues and I maintain our energy/efforts aimed at repealing New York’s harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws (see p. 5 for an update on the Drop the Rock campaign). The Correctional Association has been pressing this issue, in one way or another, for at least 20 years. In recent years, editorial boards and community groups, civic and church leaders, even the governor and legislative leaders have called for repeal or reform. Yet nothing happens, nothing changes. And each year advocates and activists keep expressing their concerns, keep organizing for change, keep coming up with strategies for spotlighting the issues, for keeping the heat on. How do you deal with the frustration? How do you avoid burn-out?

My response to these questions reflects an understanding, at least my understanding, of the great purpose and value of an organization like the Correctional Association. To explain, let me draw on the wisdom of the renowned Italian-American philosopher Vince Lombardi. At a testimonial dinner late in his career, Coach Lombardi said, “You know, my football teams never lost a game. On a few occasions, the clock just ran out.” Well, in our game of whatever you want to call it – prison reform, better treatment for the undesirables and outlaws and the poorest and most vulnerable among us, a more fair and balanced and humane system of justice – the clock, like the watch in those old Timex commercials, keeps on ticking. The final buzzer never rings.

When the CA’s Prison Visiting Project decided to concentrate its attention on the city’s court pens that hold newly arrested people before they are arraigned, some said that you will never move that issue, the public doesn’t care about those people, the mainly poor blacks and Latinos who make up the vast majority of arrested individuals in New York City. Today, despite some problems, many of the pens are decent places: pay phones in every cell, medical screening for every detainee, better lighting and food, more sanitary conditions. We achieved this positive outcome through prolonged effort: regular visits to the pens, outreach to concerned officials and the press and relentless attention to follow-up and detail. We found many people did care.

When Governor George Pataki took office in 1995, people said our agenda was at risk. (For my purposes here, I use him as a symbol. From our standpoint, he is not better or worse than other political figures. He built many fewer prisons than his predecessor did, for example.) The Governor has had his victories – the reinstatement of the death penalty, cutbacks to prison programs–painful setbacks to us. Yet we make progress on other important issues. Our Prison Visiting Project works with key state legislators in designing and promoting bills to improve prison health care by establishing outside oversight and by attracting better qualified medical staff. Our Women in Prison Project has successfully moved legislation promoting better treatment for battered women who wind up in prison. Our Juvenile Justice Project has helped block the allocation of millions of dollars to build more youth jails.

In all their work, the CA board and staff are sustained by a fundamental insight. Governor Pataki is a powerful man, but he, like all political leaders, is a passing power. The CA was here and active when Silas Wright was governor in 1844. When Grover Cleveland was governor 40 years later.

When Samuel Tilden, Teddy Roosevelt, Al Smith and Nelson Rockefeller were governors. The CA will always be here. And if not us, then some other reformers in some other form, people who will put their hard work and best thinking on the line for social justice, racial justice, criminal justice, human justice.

And so it is with the Rockefeller Drug Laws and our Drop the Rock campaign. No movement yet? We are still here. Political leaders have not followed up on their rhetoric and their promises? We are not going away. Are we disappointed? Yes. Are we quitting? No way. Because despite the political and bureaucratic obstacles in our path, we are confident in our purpose and in its importance. Because in our game, time never runs out.