State prison commissioner - short-timer with tough task

After less than a week in office, in 1982, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo faced a major prison riot at the large Ossining Correctional Facility (formerly called Sing-Sing).

His administration is widely praised for the peaceful resolution of the incident. More important, perhaps, the resolution put a spotlight on the importance of corrections administration. Not surprisingly, the governor retained the incumbent commissioner.

Choosing a chief warden is one of the crucial yet least-understood criminal-justice decisions a governor makes. But faced with unprecedented overcrowding, severely limited funds, and court orders to improve conditions within prisons (36 states at present), the assignment is extremely difficult. Such are some of the preliminary findings in an unpublished study by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York.

''Governors no longer can just walk into office and treat the commissioner's appointment in a low-profile way,'' says a spokesman for Governor Cuomo. Given the size of most state prison systems with their fiscal and personnel management responsibilities, ''the position merits the highest degree of professionalism.''

The area that most hinders the efficient running of state prison systems is the high turnover rate of corrections commissioners, prison officials say.

''More than two-thirds of all commissioners in the United States are replaced at least every four years,'' says Anthony P. Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association. ''It depends on the state.''

It is not surprising that this, more than any other factor, leads to bad management decisions in prisons, says Amos Reed, chief correction officer for Washington State. ''No one would run a large business this way,'' he says.

''Describe the commissioner of correction's job? That's easy. It's to keep the governor's name out of the papers,'' says one commissioner who requests anonymity.

Such a glib comment, say corrections experts from around the country, is or should be a dying stereotype. It limits - incorrectly these officials say - the perception of a chief correction official's role. This stereotype portrays him as a crisis manager with the news media, and a political crony.It can only further the widely held belief that prisons are too often mismanaged.

''Some systems need a gadfly commissioner and some systems need a stabilizer, '' Mr. Travisono says.

But often a governor wants to select a new commissioner quickly, reports the Clark Foundation, which examines social issues. When the governor is new, he wants the appointment to coincide with his overall transition into office.

Governors, responsible for the public's safety, don't like to take risks with prisons. Ironically, a new commissioner often must be innovative to correct what amounts to a bad situation.

Control of prison operations is the greatest concern of any commissioner, says Ken Schoen, former corrections commissioner for Minnesota and now in charge of criminal justice programs for the Clark Foundation. ''And the governor, the legislature, and the state budget director who handles the purse strings shape the control a commissioner will have. Overcrowding, insufficient monies, poor pay for correction officers. The commissioner inherits these conditions.''

Reform advocates who seek to disengage the commissioner selection process from the heat of politics say a longer term for the position has the potential for the greatest reform, and would require no additional funding.

''There is an assumption of managerial and professional continuity that just isn't there,'' says Mr. Reed, who has held top corrections posts in three other states in his 38-year career. What can be lost sight of in a revolving-door position, says Reed, is that ''a human sacredness exists in the management mission of prisons. It's certainly no place for a novice.''

''We don't expect governors to come in and turn a state around in four years; why should we expect the individual who runs the prisons to do the same?'' Travisono asks. ''A commissioner needs at least eight years to bring about progressive change. Yet there are only six commissioners with 10 or more years of experience in the same state. . . .''

Reform advocates such as Travisono do not make light of the political reality that the buck stops with the governor when it comes to running prisons.

Changing public attitudes on crime directly affect the election of governors. Commissioners operate in this environment. Finding and keeping one with the right mix of professionalism and political philosophy for two different governors is a societal challenge, not just that of a single administration.

Benjamin Ward, former commissioner of corrections for New York State and now commissioner for New York City, takes what he considers a more pragmatic approach, given the high-turnover environment of his job.

The individual should not be ''afraid to be fired. He will then be an implementer. He will be pro-active in administering his system,'' Mr. Ward says.

Ward is one of four black chief corrections officers in the US. Though women have been in charge of state correction systems, at present there is none.

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