Widespread Racial Disparities in Discipline Found at N.Y. Prisons

ALBANY, N.Y. — A new report from the inspector general’s office has documented significant racial and ethnic disparities in discipline across New York State prisons, finding that over a six-year period, Black inmates were 22 percent more likely to be disciplined than white ones.

The report, issued by Inspector General Lucy Lang, comes six years after The New York Times published a 2015 investigation into racial bias in state prisons. The Times found that Black prisoners faced more punishment than white ones, leading to loss of privileges, longer stays in solitary confinement and, ultimately, more time behind bars.

State inspectors reviewed 385,057 misbehavior reports filed from 2015 through 2020 to expand upon The Times’s analysis. They found that the discrepancies had actually worsened over time, most significantly in 2020, when Black prisoners were 38 percent more likely, and Hispanic prisoners 29 percent more likely, to be cited in misbehavior reports.

The inspector general concurred with The Times that these discrepancies were most pronounced for violations that were, according to the report, arguably more subjective. The largest disparities were for offenses like gang activity, assault on another inmate and “involvement in a demonstration detrimental to facility order,” which saw Black prisoners five times more likely, and Hispanic prisoners three times, to be found in violation than white inmates.

“Notably, many of the rules that the white incarcerated population was more likely to be charged by DOCCS with violating were less subjective, offering less opportunity for bias,” the report says, noting examples like tattooing and failing a drug test.

And while the disparities at certain prisons, like Elmira, Clinton and Downstate, were particularly dramatic, the disparities existed across all facilities, the report found, suggesting that they could not be attributed to “a few bad apples” at any one facility. Similarly, the disparities existed regardless of the severity of the crime the prisoner had committed.

Even so, the report stopped short of attributing the disparities to racial bias, saying that while inequalities existed across the criminal justice system, existing data was not sufficient to support a finding of systemic racism.

“Assigning the overall or specific cause of the disparities to explicit and implicit racial bias cannot be supported by data alone,” the report concluded, noting among other things, the uncertain effect of a 41 percent decline in prison population since 2015, with a greater concentration of violent offenders.

In response to the report, the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees the state’s 25,000 corrections employees and nearly 31,000 prisoners, said that it recognized that racial disparities were present across the criminal justice system from arrest to sentencing to re-entry.

It said the department would “continue to emphasize our vision of a fair and just criminal justice system.”

Corrections has already implemented a number of changes intended to reduce racial bias, the report noted, including increasing the use of statewide hearing officers less likely to be influenced by prison leadership, diversifying its work force and requiring that all discipline reports be classified at the “lowest appropriate” level.

The inspector general’s office is recommending that Corrections clarify when disciplinary action is warranted and further standardize punishment. It has also recommended that officers receive annual implicit bias training and that the system implement additional measures to increase transparency.

In its response, the Department of Corrections pledged to create a new manual for hearing officers and look at data sources that might help elucidate issues of bias. But it raised issues with other recommendations, noting, for example, that analyzing misbehavior reports for low-level violations would be difficult because state rules call for them to be destroyed 14 days after hearings.

The Times investigation, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, included the voices and stories of Black inmates who said that guards often used racism to instill subordination, ranging from racist epithets to physical violence. One man was beaten by four guards, one of whom later bragged about hanging the man’s dreadlocks from his motorcycle.

Following the publication of that report, Andrew M. Cuomo, then the governor, ordered the inspector general at the time, Catherine Leahy-Scott, to investigate racial bias in state prisons. Ms. Leahy-Scott sought the expertise of the National Institute of Corrections, part of the Department of Justice, issuing a report in 2017.

But while some of those recommendations, like bringing in outside hearing officers, were implemented, the Department of Corrections resisted others, according to the report.

In fact, several of the recommendations in the inspector general’s 2022 report, such as the suggestion that Corrections limit guards’ discretion and study low-level violations, reiterate those made by the National Institute of Corrections — raising the question of whether some of the impact of the disparities over the past five years might have been avoided.

In response to the report, Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokeswoman for the governor, said: “Governor Hochul strongly condemns any form of bias or discrimination, and we will review the inspector general’s findings and continue working with DOCCS to make the system more equitable and just.”

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