What we know: On double-celling, double-bunking, and prison downsizing

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For nearly 170 years the Correctional Association has tirelessly advocated for humane treatment of the people held inside the State’s prisons.

Our recent advocacy has included challenging the practice of shackling women during childbirth; opposing the practice of locking severely mentally ill people in solitary confinement; and fighting for the right to quality healthcare, to name a few. We also played a major role in the reform of New York’s draconian and wasteful Rockefeller Drug Laws.

As the State’s prison population sky-rocketed, the CA advocated for prison downsizing. We have consistently called for less reliance on incarceration and the increased use of alternatives to incarceration.

This, and all of our advocacy work, is supported by in-depth research.

The CA has long opposed the practice of “double-celling” – forcing two people to share a small cell that was designed for one inhabitant, for months, or sometimes even years. In recent years, we have seen a decreased use of double-celling by DOCCS, albeit not an elimination of the practice. Our recent observations are that outside of the SHU and S-blocks, double-celling is used only as a temporary measure upon entry into a facility until a person is moved to a single cell on a tier in a maximum-security facility.

“Double-bunking” is a practice where bunk beds are used in a dormitory setting generally found in medium-security facilities.  Here, people reside in a large open space and sleep on bunk beds. Unlike double-celling, people housed in double-bunks are not confined to a small cell with another individual.

The CA has collected data from 9,000 incarcerated individuals over the past eight years. The responses we have received regarding double-bunking do not indicate that this practice is the focus of complaint or problematic treatment.

Rather, the majority of complaints focus on inadequate healthcare, physical and sexual abuse from corrections officers, racist and xenophobic attitudes, poor treatment of the mentally ill, abusive use of the SHU, inadequate programming, and very limited educational and vocational opportunities.

The prison population in New York State has decreased by over 15,000 in the past ten years, while at the same time the crime rate has decreased. This has resulted in thousands of empty prison beds. The CA rightly called for the Governor to close facilities that were underutilized and not needed. The Governor has closed over a dozen facilities, recognizing that our State can maintain public safety and incarcerate far fewer people simultaneously. While we may differ at times with which facilities the Governor chooses to close, we agree that closing unnecessary prisons is an important step in the right direction.

We continue to urge the Governor to take a hard look at the overuse of maximum-security classifications for many incarcerated people. An initiative that periodically reviewed the security classifications of the population would likely result in decreasing the classifications of a significant portion of the people inside. This would enable DOCCS to move many people from maximum-security facilities to medium- and minimum-security facilities where the cost per person is far less.

An empty bed is an empty bed, whether it’s stacked as a bunk-bed in a dormitory, or exists in a single-person cell.