Cayuga Correctional Facility in Moravia has become a testing ground of sorts for reforms being implemented by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Some believe the changes are long overdue; others argue that inmates are being coddled. We believe that extreme views on either side are not helpful.
Cayuga is closing 200 of its 232 Special Housing Unit cells where inmates who break the rules are held in solitary confinement. The prison is also taking part in a pilot program that provides inmates with computer tablets preloaded with educational materials and the ability to connect to families through email.
Prisons have long used solitary confinement as a means of punishing inmates who don't behave and for isolating those who pose a danger to others. But experts say that solitary confinement can do real damage to a person's psychological health, worsening cases of mental illness and making some inmates more prone to violence rather than less so.
As for tablets, the knee-jerk reaction from many is that the state is allowing too many perks for felons and providing them with luxuries many working people can't afford.
We agree that inmates can't be allowed to roam facilities as they please, and they shouldn't be given unfettered access to the internet, but they also shouldn't be kept in their cells all day with nothing to do but stare at the walls.
Remember that in addition to protecting society from dangerous people, the "corrections" aspect of the state prison system recognizes that most inmates will one day be released, so the state has an obligation to help them change their ways and learn from their mistakes whenever possible.
The evolving nature of prisons means working to find the middle ground between allowing too much freedom for inmates and having them isolated for long periods of time.
Having said that, we acknowledge that boots-on-the-ground corrections officers are the ones tasked with implementing whatever rules policymakers put in place. For the sake of those workers, prisons do need mechanisms in place for dealing with prisoners prone to repeated acts of violence. If solitary confinement is going too far, another avenue has to be made available for addressing the behavior of incorrigible inmates.
It's going to be up to the state to closely monitor the effects of these and other policy changes to make sure that the intent and supposition behind them bring about their hoped-for results. The prison system must evolve over time as modern science and technology pave the way for improvements — but care must be taken to identify and correct any unforeseen negative consequences that result from reforms.
Cutting back on Special Housing Units and allowing inmates to spend controlled time on computers must be evaluated for their effectiveness and altered when and if the evidence shows they aren't working out as planned.
The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Rob Forcey, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.