New Staff, New Research for Prison Visiting Project

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With two new staff members and restored access to correctional facilities, the Prison Visiting Project (PVP) has returned to its mission: monitoring conditions in New York State prisons. After resolving its dispute with the Department of Correctional Services, PVP initiated an aggressive schedule of prison visits last fall. The Project continues to advocate for the reforms recommended in its recent reports on disciplinary confinement and on mental health care.

In addition, PVP is beginning new research on substance abuse in prison—evaluating the state prisons’ treatment programs and transitional services for incarcerated individuals with substance abuse problems.

In October 2004, the Correctional Association hired Jack Beck as the Director of the Prison Visiting Project. Jack is an attorney who worked at the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society for 23 years. For much of that time, he focused on improving health care for incarcerated individuals, and was a lead attorney in litigation on behalf of the more than 5,000 HIV-infected incarcerated people in New York prisons. Jack also worked with the CA as a member of a statewide coalition concerned with prison health care.

Shayna Kessler, who previously coordinated the Drop the Rock Coaliton for the CA, joined PVP as the new Project Associate in January. Shayna has worked in the development department of Am nesty International, and spent three years at the Bronx Defenders, where she oversaw community outreach and coordinated fundraising.

“Jack and Shayna bring energy, talent, and commitment to the CA’s efforts,” said Executive Director Bob Gangi. “PVP is in excellent hands.”

During the past six months, PVP has visited Coxsackie, Mid-Orange, Upstate, Clinton, Southport, Fishkill and Attica Correctional Facilities. The interviews and inspections revealed that many problems identified during earlier visits still remain, such as idleness and poor medical care. PVP was particularly disturbed by conditions at Upstate and Southport, which together confine almost 1,700 incarcerated individuals in Special Housing Units (SHUs) 23 hours per day, for months—or even years—at a time. Some incarcerated individuals in SHU are placed on a restricted diet: a dense, tasteless loaf of bread served three times a day for a week. These concerns and others are detailed in the Project’s 2002-03 State of the Prisons report, which will be published in early spring.

Finally, the Project’s new research efforts will shed light on an issue that affects prison health care as well as public health and safety. More than 70% of incarcerated individuals entering New York State prisons have a substance abuse problem. PVP will research whether the prisons are effective in identifying and treating drug users, and whether the facilities provide sufficient transitional services for incarcerated individuals upon release. The Project will identify model programs and advocate for services that help individuals overcome their addictions and return safely to their communities.