December 1, 2008

Commissioner of Corrections Expounds on America’s Prisons

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As students filed into Goldwin Smith Lewis Auditorium last Tuesday for GOVT 3141: Prisons, a different face than Prof. Mary Katzenstein, government, greeted them at the front of the room. Brian Fischer, commissioner of corrections for New York State, was brought in to talk about the Prison system in America.
“We talk about the structure of society that often ends up directing people to the prison system,” Katzenstein said of the class.
Fischer began his career with the New York State Narcotic Addiction Control Commission. After serving several superintendent positions at various institutions in New York, he became superintendent of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 2000. Fischer’s mark on Sing Sing was indelible, as he instituted a pre-release program for mentally ill patients and supported the creation of educational and social programs for inmates. In 2007, former governor Eliot Spitzer appointed him to his current position.
Fischer began his speech noting the fallacy of prison culture that is popularly portrayed in the media.
“Frankly, I hate programs like Oz, because it’s not even factually close to reality,” Fischer said. To illustrate his point, Fischer compared fraternities to street gangs, as both organizations have accepted traditions, a tight-knit camp of men, respected ways of dressing and even a coded language of speech.
Fischer then talked about the development of American prisons. America, which has the world’s highest incarceration rate, is still evolving to fit the needs of its large population of inmates. According to Fischer, much more could be done to ensure the social improvement of prisoners.
“If I had my druthers, I would put a college program in every institution,” Fischer said. “What occurs in a college education is the socialization.” The socialization aspect is an often overlooked but crucial facet of the incarceration process, he explained. Social programs, such as those instituted at Sing Sing, help prisoners not only develop life skills, but can serve to stymie a potential relapse into crime once released.
Speaking on the subjects of prison releases, Fischer explained that women often have the hardest transition from prison to the real world. Relationships or social support women may have upon entering prison usually dry up very quickly, leading many women to develop lesbian relationships while incarcerated, Fischer said. A different problem altogether is presented with male inmates, who often maintain several relationships with women at one time, which often leads to contentious visits by the scorned women once the men are found out.
Fischer then approached the subject of prison’s relation to the large scale of national and state governments, and the power changes that have affected the prison system.
“Prisons do not exist in a vacuum,” said Fischer. “We are subject to legislative changes.” Among the most important prison and criminal reforms include the Rockefeller drug laws. Before this notoriously harsh legislation was enacted in the mid 1970s, drug offenders and addicts would often enter “civilly committed” programs, which entailed a three-year state funded treatment series. The Rockefeller laws criminalized possession and distribution of narcotics, instantly turning many of the drug addicts Fischer was working with from state beneficiaries to criminals.
“They’re impacted by everything we do, and everything the courts tell us,” Fischer said of the prisoners. “The people don’t change, the law changes.”
Fischer ended his lecture by discussing the incarceration of the mentally ill, an issue he believes is one of the most complicated and important in American correctional facilities. Fischer cited that 13 percent of American prisoners are mentally ill, with a portion of those prisoners facing especially severe mental health problems. Though halfway houses and other measures could potentially help mentally ill convicts, Fischer doubts that American taxpayers would want to sport the burden.
“Are we willing as a society to pay for what we should be paying for?” asked Fischer. “Prison is not the place for treatment.”
Wrapping up his discussion, Fischer answered students’ questions ranging from the prevalence of juveniles in American detention facilities to the effects of sensory deprivation cells.
“I’d like to think [the students] gained a different perspective on what prison’s all about,” Fischer said after the lecture. “Information is definitely the key to everything.”
Fischer’s lecture was one aspect of a class that often changes the way many students think about crime in America.
“Knowledge is power,” Charlotte Vincent ’09 said. “I think it’s really important they have this class this year. It gives you a different perspective on the prisoners.”