New York State’s Constitutional Legacy of Prison Inspection Conflict

face of a prisoner

After the third New York State constitution (1846) obscured the Prison Association’s legal authority for prison inspections, successive New York State constitutions and constitutional amendments further reconfigured prison inspection authority and eventually submerged it into a more general administrative structure. The third New York Constitution, Art. 5, Sec. 4, established elected prison inspectors. In 1874, Art. 5, Sec. 4, was amended to replace the elected state prison inspectors with a governor-appointed Superintendent of State Prisons. The fourth New York Constitution (1894), Art. 8, Sec. 11, established a Commission on Prisons to inspect prisons. In 1925, the name of the Commission on Prisons was changed to the Commission on Corrections, and the head of the Department of Corrections named its ex officio chair. The fifth New York Constitution (1938), Art. 5, Sec. 4, provided for the governor’s appointment of heads of departments and members of boards and commissions. It did not distinguish state officials responsible for inspecting prisons. A constitutional amendment in 1973 eliminated the ex officio position of the head of the Department of Corrections on the Commission on Corrections.^

Textual evidence of the battles between New York Sate prison inspectors and the Prison Association of New York remains in the present New York State Constitution. Article XVII, Section 6, of the current New York State Constitution obscurely declares:

Visitation and inspection as herein authorized, shall not be exclusive of other visitation and inspection now or hereafter authorized by law.

Essentially the same article was first adopted in the New York Constitution of 1894, Art. VIII, Sec. 13. That article obliquely refers to the Prison Association’s Act of Incorporation (1846) granting it inspection authority. In the Constitution of 1938, the phrase “or hereafter”, which was not in the 1894 provision, was added and the section was renumbered as Art. XVII, Sec. 6. Thus battles between the Prison Association of New York and state prison inspectors have had an enduring and under-appreciated legacy in New York State constitutions.

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