Young father says he put family before prison job
When he became a state corrections officer six years ago, Joshua Banks said he looked forward to putting on his uniform and reporting to duty.
Young father says he put family before prison job
ALBANY — When he became a state corrections officer six years ago, Joshua Banks said he looked forward to putting on his uniform and reporting to duty. But as the atmosphere behind bars became increasingly dangerous, with combative inmates facing little consequences for acts of violence or other transgressions, Banks said he began having panic attacks when he had to check in for another shift.
Staffing gaps, meanwhile, led to more mandatory overtime, interrupting his family time with his wife and toddler.
At 35, having worked at a succession of upstate prisons, he resigned from the job last month. “I walked away from a six-figure job, gambling my family’s financial security, for the sake of my own mental health,” the Seneca County man said.
A former security specialist for the U.S. Navy Reserves, Banks said he has never been on a job with such sagging morale as what he witnessed in his last couple of years with the state corrections agency.
On one of his final weeks at the Cayuga Correctional Facility, he said he and several other officers were “stuck” — required to work overtime — to guard inmates kept in the prison’s Residential Rehabilitation Unit, the state’s new alternative to isolating misbehaving prisoners.
“They stuck five guys so inmates could be pulled out to watch the new “Matrix” movie and the new “Batman” movie that weekend,” Banks said. “It didn’t matter that you had plans with your family. What mattered was the inmates had to watch ‘Matrix.’”
Restrictions clamped on the use of special housing units — a placement critics had called solitary confinement — came as a result of the implementation of the H.A.L.T. (Humane Alternatives to Long Term confinement) measure approved last year. That has left corrections officers with few tools to deal with inmates who attack each other or try to assault prison staff, Banks said.
Even before that law took effect, he said the prison system had become increasingly disinterested in holding unruly inmates accountable for their actions.
While working at Five Points Correctional Facility in 2018, Banks said he was screening an inmate before admitting him into a block. During the search, he recalled, that inmate reached into his underwear and pulled out a sharpened toothbrush and a broken piece of Plex-glass that had been fashioned into a spear-like cutting instrument.
“The inmate assaulted me and two other officers during the frisk,” Banks said. “I tore my rotator cuff and needed surgery. They didn’t do anything to the inmate.”
Banks put in for a transfer to Willard Correctional Facility. That facility was later converted into a drug rehabilitation prison, though it eventually closed.
Banks briefly went to the Auburn state prison before transferring to the Cayuga facility in Moravia.
The new rules require that inmates being punished for violating prison rules spend no more than 15 days in special housing confinement. After that, they go to the residential rehabilitation units, allowing them to be outside their cells for seven hours a day so they can attend classes and watch movies, he said.
“It used to be that if an inmate stabbed another inmate in the yard, he’d get 180 days in special housing,” Banks said. “Now you kill a staff member and you only get 15 days.”
As a result, maintaining order within prisons has become increasingly challenging, he said.
“If you write a ticket for alcohol or drugs, they get shredded; they disappear,” Banks said. “It’s created a situation where nobody wants to enforce the rules. I mean, why waste three hours doing paperwork when they’re going to throw it out anyway.”
Asked about corrections officer attrition and staffing at the prisons, Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the state Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision, said thousands of officers were hired in the 1990s when the agency underwent a major expansion, and many of these officers have reached or exceeded the 25 years of service they wanted before retiring.
“DOCCS, like many law enforcement agencies across the country, is experiencing challenges in its recruiting of security staff,” Mailey said. “However, the Department has been able to maintain a ratio of 1 security staff for every 1.8 incarcerated individuals, among the best ratios in the country. “
Over the past year, he said, the agency has experienced “a slight uptick” in attrition among corrections officers.
When CNHI sought specific attrition data maintained by the agency, the news outlet was advised to file a formal request through a state Freedom of Information Law portal.
Mailey noted the agency is currently recruiting corrections officers and has scheduled a civil service exam for applicants.
An explanation of employment opportunities with the agency can be found at this web page: https://doccs.ny.gov/employment/correction-officer-trainee
The implementation of restrictions on the use of special housing units to isolate prisoners for long periods was advocated by the New York Civil Liberties Union. It cites reports from the United Nations and other human rights organizations as concluding that locking individuals in solitary confinement for more than 15 days amounts to torture.
But the union that once represented Banks, the New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association, argues disciplining inmates by holding them in special confinement for longer periods sends a message that violence behind prison walls won’t be tolerated.
The job of being a corrections officer has become increasingly dangerous, said John Roberts, northern region vice president of NYSCOPBA.
New York’s prisons have become “a powder keg,” with inmates realizing they will face minimal consequences for violating prison rules, he said.
The stress has also been fueled by the mandatory overtime requirements, with some officers finding themselves forced to surrender their dogs because they no longer had adequate time to care for their pets, Roberts said.
Banks, meanwhile, said he has been keeping busy installing HVAC systems.
“I’ve seen my son more in the last month than I had in the year and a half since he was born,” Banks said.
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