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An aerial view of Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, New York
Aerial view of Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, New York (Imagery ©2024 Google, Map data ©2024)

Strikers in Hollywood and at major U.S. automakers were not the only disgruntled workers in the country last year. Corrections officers at New York state prisons also entered the labor fray, protesting low pay and poor working conditions.

A 1967 state law prohibits strikes by public unionized employees, including corrections officers. However, the last strike was in 1979 and lasted for 16 days. I remember it clearly. I was 17 years old; it was my first time confined. I remember the National Guard coming in — and that they were kind to us. I also remember overhearing the union representative explaining to officers that some might lose their jobs because the strike was illegal.

Over the course of 2023, state prison guards used other means to make their discontent known. They initiated work slowdowns and sick-outs, and took paid leaves of absence — known colloquially as being “out on comp” — purportedly for injuries sustained restraining and or being assaulted by the incarcerated. A number of officers simply quit.

During the second week of August at Green Haven Correctional Facility, officers intensified their tactics. From Aug. 24 through Labor Day, a high number of security staff went on vacation. During this period, all programs, including academic classes and industrial shops, were closed.

Green Haven ran on a skeleton crew that week. The only movement by incarcerated residents were two one-hour recreation periods a day, meals in the mess hall, visits, medical appointments and package pickups. And all movement occurred late and out of sync with typical routines.

Weekend and holiday hot dinners in the mess hall were replaced by bagged cold cuts dispensed during the lunch meal. The first weekend, it was a brown bag with chicken bologna, two pieces of cheese, two cookies, a bag of potato chips and a piece of fruit. After that, the brown bag contained the chicken bologna, two pieces of cheese or boiled eggs, and one dessert item.

Hot meals were restored Oct. 28, 2023. But programming remains hit-or-miss.

Education courses as well as vocational and industry programs have been canceled two or three times a week. The only regularly scheduled events are the two one-hour recreation periods in the yard and access to the law library. The yard runs are mandatory, and state law requires the law library to be open.

The complaint heard everywhere in the facility is: Recreation is now more important than education and rehabilitation.

An increased level of violence in recent years among those confined, and between the confined and staff, has also made life difficult here.

Violence brings all movement to a halt, effectively shutting down the facility for hours at a time. Some incarcerated individuals said they believed the increased violence was a deliberate strategy by officers and their union, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, to create leverage for demands to Gov. Kathy Hochul. This could not be independently confirmed.

What has been confirmed is that these problems are statewide and affect all state correctional facilities

Officers have multiple grievances beyond pay and working conditions. According to the union representing corrections officers, the issues include the denial of days off, decreased staff input on work schedules, and pushback against the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, also known as the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which limits the use of solitary confinement. Prison closures also are a highly contentious issue among staff who are concerned about job security.

In my experience, the incarcerated feel the brunt of staffing shortages. As a result of decreased staffing, we have at times been confined to our cells for an average of 21 hours a day. And we are victims ourselves of all the downstream consequences: combustible frustrations, increased substance use and worsening mental health.

There are many among the incarcerated who see a silver lining in the current flux, however. Some hope that the talk of closing prisons is a precursor to decarceration. Others contend that rehabilitation is all but impossible under the current conditions.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.