By LARRY ROBINSON
Ogdensburg native Michael B. Powers is on a mission to keep as many state prisons open as possible, and to educate the public on the role corrections officers play in helping safeguard society.
Mr. Powers, a 23-year veteran of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, is running for statewide president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association. The union represents some 23,000 workers including corrections officers, mental health workers and public security guards.
“Violent crime in the state has increased significantly on the street and, more concerning for us, in our facilities.” Mr. Powers said Wednesday. “What has happened is that you’ve had a restructuring of the Department of Corrections.”
Mr. Powers’s bid for the union’s top position comes amid shifting tides in the Department of Corrections. In the past four years, state officials have shuttered a dozen facilities. A fresh round of pending closures includes Chateaugay Correctional Facility in Franklin County and Mount McGregor in Saratoga County. To facilitate the shut downs, Mr. Powers said state officials have embarked on a slippery slope of reclassifying the security ranking of large segments of the inmate population. By deeming violent felons as less of a threat, the inmates are systematically moved from maximum security facilities to those housing prisoners considered to be of medium risk. Others, he said, are simply released.
“Three years ago we had up to 120 percent capacity of maximum security inmates, and we didn’t have the max space to house them,” Mr. Powers said. “So what the department did was to reclassify the inmates, and they reclassified them to medium standards. So they put the more violent, and more institutionalized, if you will, from a max facility to a medium setting.”
The result of the administrative shift has been two-fold, according to Mr. Powers. He said more potentially dangerous criminals have been put back on the streets, and the inmates left behind bars have in many cases created a much more dangerous environment for fellow inmates and those who guard them.
“The medium setting has no individual cells. It is a dormitory-type setting, and with that came an increase in violence in our medium facilities,” Mr. Powers said.
He said assaults on staff have risen, inmate-on-inmate crime has risen, and gang activity behind bars is at an all-time high.
“You can’t get on a phone in our prisons without gang approval to call their loved ones. That’s just a fact. We can’t get around it. We don’t have enough eyes or ears on the floor, and that is one of our concerns,” he said.
While saying that making sure the state’s prison system is safer for corrections officers is a top priority, Mr. Powers said he also sees the union president’s position as a platform from which to educate the public on what the day-to-day job of being a corrections officer entails, and the secondary role union members play in keeping the public at large safe from violence on the streets.
“There’s the perception of being an over-paid baby sitter, which angers me to no end,” Mr. Powers said. “I’ve got 23 years in this department and I’ve always been an advocate for the job. It’s a job that has been labeled the forgotten cop. We are the officers that are behind the walls and the fences and nobody seems to know what happens in there.”
In recent weeks the NYSCOPBA membership voted out president Donn Rowe, paving the way for a showdown between Mr. Powers and the Hudson region’s Larry Flanagan Jr. for the union’s leadership. Rank-and-file members will choose their new president July 10.
Mr. Powers said he is drawing on his years of service in facilities across the state, from the Bronx to Ogdensburg, to muster support. In addition, he points to his active involvement in the successful grass-roots efforts to save the Ogdensburg Correctional Facility and the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center from the state budget ax.
“I lobbied a lot,” Mr. Powers said. “Whenever there’s an issue, I’m the guy that shows up at the scene. I have quite a lofty agenda if I am successful at this.”