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Comptroller: Correction commission failed to monitor, inspect state prisons

State of New York Comptroller

The agency in charge of monitoring and inspecting correctional facilities across New York state has not been adequately doing its job, the state comptroller's office said Friday. 

According to an audit of the State Commission of Correction, from January 2014 to July 2017, the commission should have been monitoring 561 state and local correctional facilities and jails and routinely inspecting the state's 54 prisons. However, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said the commission generally failed to do so. 

Auditors found the commission — which is comprised of three commissioners and 28 staff — had largely focused its resources on local, independently operated facilities. As a result, the audit said the commission did not routinely inspect state facilities, which are overseen by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. 

"The State Commission of Correction is not adequately monitoring what's happening in our prisons," DiNapoli said in a press release. "The commission needs to improve its tracking of data and to identify patterns or trends that merit attention to protect the rights and safety of inmates and correctional staff." 

In addition to inspections, the commission is also responsible for responding to complaints and inmate grievances, and while the audit found its response time had actually improved, DiNapoli said more could be done, particularly with a new management information system. 

"The new data system ... falls far short of helping them identify problems and needs to be addressed," the comptroller said. 

DiNapoli recommended that the commission improve the system to retain and analyze information for state facilities while monitoring DOCCS accreditation results. He also suggested that the agency analyze complaints and grievances to identify any emerging issues at a specific facility or system-wide. 

In response, the commission said it is collaborating with DOCCS and the Office of Information Technology Services to "explore various options by which DOCCS could report significant facility incidents." The commission also said it would try to obtain and review the accreditation reports from DOCCS. 

As for the new data system, the commission said it was still being developed at the time of the audit. Since then, it said it has tailored the system to "more effectively monitor data generated from complaints and inmate grievances." 

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After appeal, feds approve Lake Ontario flood aid for Cayuga, Monroe counties

Two counties affected by flooding along Lake Ontario will receive help from the federal government after all. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency amended its major disaster declaration to include Cayuga and Monroe counties. The counties will be eligible to receive assistance for debris removal, emergency measures and repairing public infrastructure. 

President Donald Trump initially approved the disaster declaration in November for six other New York counties along the lake. But Cayuga and Monroe counties were omitted from the declaration. 

Cayuga County was excluded due to a technicality. FEMA said the county didn't meet the threshold required to receive federal assistance, but that may have been due to a clerical error. Local and state officials said damage to Fair Haven Beach State Park, which is located within Cayuga County, wasn't included. 

With the damage factored in, the officials believed Cayuga County would exceed the threshold required to receive federal help. 

The state appealed FEMA's denial. The appeal was filed in December, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office.

"This year, many communities experienced severe and repetitive flooding along the shores of Lake Ontario due to historically high water levels and New York has been fighting all year to ensure the federal government provide appropriate support to help counties get back on their feet," Cuomo said. 

Cayuga County's federal representatives learned Friday that the county would be eligible for aid. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it "great news" for the region.

"This disaster declaration finally covers the full geographic scope of this severe flooding," Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "With the addition of Monroe and Cayuga counties, Lake Ontario towns and communities will finally have the federal funds needed to address the damage from the relentless lake flooding." 

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand added, "I am grateful that FEMA has finally included Monroe and Cayuga counties to receive the federal assistance necessary to recovery from the severe flooding last year. "These communities have carried the burden in the rebuilding process, and this disaster declaration will greatly assist in the work to repair the damaged infrastructure and better protect against future flooding." 

In December, Gillibrand, Schumer and U.S. Rep. John Katko urged FEMA to reconsider aid requests from Cayuga and Monroe counties. Katko, R-Camillus, partnered with U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Rochester-area Democrat, to support adding Cayuga and Monroe counties to the disaster declaration. 

The flooding along Lake Ontario was at its worst during the spring and early summer. Heavy rainfall throughout the region contributed to the record lake levels. 

The village of Fair Haven in Cayuga County was affected. Property owners in low-lying areas set up sandbags in an attempt to hold back rising water. Docks were submerged. A no-wake order was issued for boats traveling near the shoreline. 

Fair Haven Mayor Jim Basile said the cost to repair village infrastructure is at least $200,000. 

"This is a good thing," Basile said of the FEMA declaration. "This is a positive getting that." 

Any federal aid for Cayuga County will be in addition to $45 million in state funding provided for communities affected by Lake Ontario flooding. 

Cuomo and state lawmakers, including state Sen. Pam Helming, advocated for a state fund to support Cayuga and other counties. There were separate grant programs established for homeowners, small businesses and local governments. 

While the state funding is more comprehensive, the federal aid will help local governments repair critical infrastructure, including bridges, buildings and roads. 

"I would like to thank FEMA for acting quickly to assist Cayuga County in its recovery efforts," Katko said in a statement. "This federal aid is essential to rebuilding our shoreline and will provide necessary relief to the property owners, businesses, farmers and municipalities in our community that have been devastated by flooding." 

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Cayuga County benefactor Ruth O'Hara dies at 96

The matriarch of one of Cayuga County's most influential families died this week, but her generosity continues to live on.

Ruth McCarty O'Hara, wife of Ward O'Hara, died Monday, Jan. 15 at the age of 96.

Besides working on the family dairy farm and co-founding the John Deere equipment dealership, O'Hara Machinery, Ruth and her husband donated time, money and history to Cayuga County. They did so through the Owasco-based Ward O'Hara Agricultural & Country Living Museum. 

Tim Quill, director of the museum, listed a number of things Ruth helped finance at the museum, adding that she would attend most of the year's events from Old Ways Day to the Festival of Trees.

Most recently Ruth donated funds to install new blacktop in front of the building. The museum's library, too, is named in her honor.

"She is a very modest person," Quill said. "She did not want the library named after her. I think she liked the idea, but she never wanted credit for anything. She's a very, very giving person."

According to Ruth's obituary, she was born on Nov. 8, 1921, near Forksville, Pennsylvania. She moved to central New York when she was 8, and married Ward in 1938. They were married just shy of 60 years. Ward passed away in 1997.

Ward and Ruth ran a dairy farm together in Aurelius while raising their family. Quill lived a few miles down the road from them, and he called Ruth "a farm girl at heart." He said she'd get up in the morning to milk the cows, and wasn't afraid of hard work. The farm is now a third-generation farm. 

In 1965 the O'Haras opened a machinery business. Ruth was the financial manager until her retirement, her obituary read. The husband and wife team didn't slow down, however, soon opening an antique furniture business and later the Cayuga County Agricultural Museum. Donating more than half the items on display, the museum was later renamed after Ward. 

"They've just been terrific," said Gary Duckett, superintendent of the county's parks and trails and buildings and grounds. "They've donated so much of the exhibits in the museum. It's just wonderful what they've done, and it's just very sad she (Ruth) had to pass."

The family plans to hold a celebration of Ruth's life later in the spring, according to her obituary. Shakelton Funeral Home of Auburn is in charge of the arrangements. 

Cuomo eyes longer rape kit retention period, advocate says plan is 'insufficient'

Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to lengthen the period New York hospitals are required to retain forensic rape kits, but a sexual assault survivor and leading victims' rights advocate doesn't believe the proposal goes far enough.

Cuomo's 30-point women's agenda released last week includes a provision that would require hospitals to store rape kits for at least five years or until the victim turns 19, whichever would give sexual assault survivors more time to report the crime to law enforcement.

The legislation would also require hospitals to notify sexual assault survivors before the rape kits are destroyed.

Under existing state law, hospitals are mandated to retain rape kits for only 30 days. According to Cuomo's office, that is the shortest sexual offense evidence storage mandate in the country.

"No victim should have to suffer the added pain of lacking the proof she needs to bring her case," Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa said while unveiling the women's agenda last week. "We have her back and we will change that law this year."

But Amanda Nguyen, founder and CEO of Rise, a national organization that supports civil rights for sexual assault survivors, said in a phone interview Monday that Cuomo's plan to extend the rape kit retention period is "insufficient."

Nguyen, a sexual assault survivor herself, helped author the Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights, which unanimously passed Congress in 2016 with support from the entire New York delegation. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The federal law aims to protect survivors' rights and requires the preservation of rape kits for at least 20 years or the duration of the statue of limitations.

New York's current 30-day standard and Cuomo's plan to raise it to a five-year minimum would fall well short of the mandate for federal cases.

"We have met and talked to survivors who have had their kits destroyed in New York state," Nguyen said. "One of the things we'd like to understand is where does this five years come from and more importantly, even if it is moved to five years, it's still substantially less than the rest of the nation which means that a New York survivor who is raped will still have less civil rights than his or her counterparts in the rest of the United States of America."

The five-year standard proposed by Cuomo, according to the governor's office, is based on input from stakeholders, including sexual assault survivors, hospitals, law enforcement and victim service providers. A working group comprised of relevant state agencies — the Department of Health, Division of Criminal Justice Services, Office of Children and Family Services, Office of Victim Services and the state police — also played a role in the development of the proposal.

In 2016, Cuomo signed a law to ensure rape kits are processed in a timely manner. After rape kits are turned over to police, the agencies have 10 days to submit the evidence for forensic testing. The laboratories must process the rape kits and share the results with the police and local district attorney within a 90-day period.

Cuomo's office said the proposal to extend how long hospitals must retain rape kits builds on the 2016 law.

"This is a dramatic increase from the current requirement that rape kits be maintained for only 30 days — more than a step in the right direction," said Elizabeth Bibi, a spokesperson for the governor.

While Cuomo eyes a five-year minimum, Nguyen is hopeful that her organization can help improve the proposal.

She has experience assisting states. After she was raped in Massachusetts, she had to fight to prevent her rape kit from being destroyed. She became an advocate and pushed for changes in the law.

In 2016, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed a law that requires rape kits to be preserved for 15 years — the same length of the state's statute of limitations for sexual offenses.

Nguyen said she is willing to meet with the governor to discuss why the state should establish a longer period for storing rape kits.

"This is meant to help all survivors in New York state and we want to reform the system so that nobody has to go through what I had to go through and what New York survivors had to go through when they had their kits destroyed," she said.