Skip Navigation
Regional News
Brian Fischer led New York's corrections department for seven years from 2007 until 2013, a time when nine state prisons were mothballed.  Photo:  Brian Mann
Brian Fischer led New York's corrections department for seven years from 2007 until 2013, a time when nine state prisons were mothballed. Photo: Brian Mann

The man who led a revolution inside NY prisons

Listen to this story
For decades, New York has maintained one of the largest -- and fastest growing -- prison systems in the country.

At its peak, more than seventy thousand men and women were held in state correctional facilities, many on lengthy mandatory drug sentences.

But over the last few years, the prison system has begun to shrink dramatically, with thirteen facilities closed or in the process of shutting down.

That quiet revolution was led in large part by former Corrections commissioner Brian Fischer, who stepped down last year after seven years in the post.

Hear this

Download audio

Share this


Explore this

Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Check out more stories from our Prison Time Media Project series, including profiles of Chateaugay in Franklin County and Brownsville in New York City, two communities transformed by the Rockefeller drug laws.

On one day, I was a treatment person, on the next day I was a corrections person.
A career redefined by NY's prison boom

In the early Seventies, Fischer was just starting his career and he thought he was going to be a social worker, helping drug addicts recover and heal.

"New York state had what they called the Rockefeller drug program, designed to treat heroin addicts," he recalls.  "I started the job there as a parole officer in Harlem, treating and chasing heroin addicts."

Scott Ramsay (holding sign) says he was injured in March by an inmate at Coxsackie prison.  He blamed prison crowding for creating what he described as an unsafe environment.  Photo:  Gary Carlsen, NYSCOPBA, used with permission
Scott Ramsay (holding sign) says he was injured in March by an inmate at Coxsackie prison. He blamed prison crowding for creating what he described as an unsafe environment. Photo: Gary Carlsen, NYSCOPBA, used with permission
Governor Nelson Rockefeller had been a huge supporter of drug treatment, even pending his own money to fund programs like methadone treatment clinics for heroin addicts.

But in 1973, Rockefeller decided that treatment just wasn’t working. "I have to say that as far as I am aware, there is no known absolute cure for addiction," Rockefeller complained, as he pushed for tougher sentencing laws.

The new Rockefeller drug laws, approved by New York's legislature, transformed the way we think about drug addiction, putting less emphasis on treatment and setting big new prison sentences for even low-level drug crimes. 

Brian Fischer – who thought he was going to spend his life helping heal and rehabilitate addicts, instead found himself in a new career.  "On one day, I was a treatment person, on the next day I was a corrections person," he says.

Fischer points out that people in those days were scared.  And he says the drug epidemics, heroin and crack in particular, became a flash point for politicians.

"It was very political and that whole concept of 'soft on crime' became a whipping stick for some politicians to use."

A new industry expanding fast, but also new doubts

State and Federal laws got tougher and tougher.  And as new inmates flooded the system, the new prison industry that Fischer had joined began to explode. 

"What we experienced was really what we called population management.  Thousands of people coming in, you have to make space.

As inmate populations soared, the state Corrections department scrambled to make room. 

The village of Dannemora, NY and Clinton-Dannemora prison, one of the facilities that remains open here in the North Country. Photo: Natasha Haverty
The village of Dannemora, NY and Clinton-Dannemora prison, one of the facilities that remains open here in the North Country. Photo: Natasha Haverty
This is the period – during the 1980s – when the North Country got into the prison business in a big way, with fourteen new state and Federal prisons built in our region during a single decade.

Fischer, meanwhile, was rising in the bureaucracy.  Eventually he was named superintendent or warden at Sing Sing. 

But quietly, privately, he says more and more leaders inside the state Corrections Department began to have real doubts about the drug war.

"Hindsight, there was an overreaction.  Do we really need to put people away for 15 to life for addiction to drugs?"

Remember now, this isn’t an activist on the outside.  Brian Fischer was one of the guys inside, shaping the system, making policy, running prisons.  

Stepping into the top job, leading a quiet revolution

In 2007, then Governor Eliot Spitzer named Fischer to serve as Corrections Commissioner – the top political appointee leading New York’s massive prison complex.  As he stepped into the post, Fischer says he knew that things had to change.

"We were approximating a three billion dollar budget," he says.  With the recession hitting state coffers, that seemed unsustainable.

"When I came to the system [in the 1970s], there were 15 prisons.  When I became commissioner, there were, I don't know, fifty of them.  It was unbelievable."

Fischer says because of New York’s declining crime rate, many state prisons were only partially filled and after the Rockefeller drug laws were reformed in 2009, inmate populations dropped even further. 

So Fischer started doing something very rare in government – he started working behind the scenes to shrink and downsize his own agency.

"The first year under [Governor David] Patterson, we were denied prison closures," he recalls. 

Opposition in the North Country

Those were the years when the fight over prisons really escalated here in the North Country – when we first realized that a recession-proof industry might be vulnerable.

Local leaders rallied to save Camp Gabriels and Lyon Mountain and Chateaugay, as well as facilities in Moriah and Ogdensburg.

Lawmakers pushed back in Albany — plans to close facilities in Ogdensburg and Moriah were shelved — but Fischer was already laying the ground work for a kind of revolution – a wholesale transformation of the state’s prison complex.

"What I did was something a little creative," he recalls.  "Instead of closing whole prisons, we closed parts of prisons.   Annexes, camps, farms.  Think of it you're going from the outside in."

On Brian Fischer’s watch, a total of 9 state correctional facilities were mothballed – and four more are slated to close in July of this year. 

That trend is praised by prison reform activists and some budget watchdogs.  But it’s deeply troubling to North Country leaders like Assemblywoman Janet Duprey from Clinton County.

Duprey, who spoke at a pro-prison rally last month in Albany, is convinced that Fischer’s campaign to shrink the prison system is hurting North Country towns while making the Corrections Department less safe.

"Your spouses tell me they're worried every day now when you go to work because our prisons aren't safe like they used to be safe," Duprey said.

Camp Gabriels, once the center of a fierce debate over prisons, closed its doors in 2009.  Source: Save Camp Gabriels
Camp Gabriels, once the center of a fierce debate over prisons, closed its doors in 2009. Source: Save Camp Gabriels
Brian Fischer rejects both of these ideas.  He’s convinced that prisons never really did much good for small rural towns and he thinks economic development should come from other state investment programs – not corrections.

Fischer is also convinced that arguments about safety and overcrowding in the prisons that remain are overblown. "It has no negative impact on safety," he insists.

Fischer says prison reform movement should continue

Fischer stepped down last year after seven years as Corrections Commissioner.  

He’s a guy who saw the rise of the tough-on-crime era.  He rode and helped shape the state’s prison building boom, then led the dramatic downsizing of the last decade.

As he leaves the scene, Fischer thinks New York state is finally on track, moving toward a criminal justice system that maintains public safety without exploding the inmate population, while also offering more of the care and rehabilitation that he thought would make up his own career.

"We're moving in the right direction.  Not everybody has to go to prison.  So if you combine more realistic sentences and provide additional treatment while in prison, less people will go, they'll stay shorter, and come out a little bit better."

Visitor comments

on:

NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.