Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Letter to New York Governor Kathy Hochul

The Honorable Kathy Hochul

 Governor of New York State

 NYS State Capitol Building

 Albany, NY 12224


Dear Governor Hochul:


There are four crucial bills sitting on your desk right now that will ensure that ALL New Yorkers, regardless of their insurance provider or involvement with the criminal legal system, can access the life-saving addiction treatment they need.

In particular, I write to urge you to sign A.533(Rosenthal)/S.1795(Bailey) to mandate the use provision of medication for the treatment of substance use disorder (SUD) in all New York State’s jails and prisons. 

Why do I write?  Addiction treatment in New York’s correction facilities is sadly lacking and/or misguided.  Passing this bill will be a small step toward  larger remedy.

In July of 2016, I attended the sentencing of a young upstate New York neighbor who had committed a burglary in thrall to his drug addiction. As a friend of his family, as the father of a son who died from a heroin overdose, and in my role as an activist, I’d written a lengthy letter to the judge requesting the young man be provided every opportunity to receive the most up-to-date addiction rehabilitation services the State of New York corrections system could provide, both immediately and throughout the duration of his sentence.  I asked the court to direct that his file demonstrate that it was imperative he receive the best drug treatment available.


I went into some detail to demonstrate that “afflicted with the disease of addiction, [he] had been ill-served by a lack of proper treatment providers and by insufficient or ill-informed treatment when any was available.  A case that should have been a public health problem with reliable public health solutions fell instead to an overburdened criminal justice system.”


Lest one think I was proposing some wildly radical idea, consider what Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, wrote in Scientific American in March of 2018. “Informed Americans no longer view addiction as a moral failing, and more and more policymakers are recognizing that punishment is an ineffective and inappropriate tool for addressing a person’s drug problems. Treatment is what is needed.” 


I am not suggesting treatment instead of prison for a crime.  I am saying effective treatment could have averted the need to commit a crime in the first place; that effective treatment while incarcerated can prepare someone for a responsible, productive life upon release; or at the least will help prevent a return to prison following a repeat offense related to drug use. Or substantially reduce the chance of death soon after release.


Little did I know then, indeed only until I stumbled upon this information most recently, that our nation’s jails and prisons operate under the "inmate exception". When Congress established Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, it specifically prohibited either plan from paying for health care in the nation’s jails and prisons. “This explicit exclusion…has contributed to a significantly under-resourced correctional health care system that is isolated from mainstream medicine and shielded from critical accreditation and external quality oversight mandates.”[1]Was the judge aware of the “inmate exception” when he handed down his sentence?  How familiar was he with drug and alcohol treatment in New York’s prisons? How naïve was I to ask the court to recommend the best treatment available thinking that there were real options?


What has happened to the young man in question?  From January 2016, when first arrested until the current time, he has been locked up in one county jail and SEVEN different state correctional facilities. Following the county jail, he has bounced from Downstate, to Great Meadow, Eastern, Coxsackie, Mohawk, Woodbourne, and Fishkill.  In his estimation, the best treatment he got anywhere was as an outpatient while in the county jail. He did enter one six-month treatment program (ASAT – Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment). As he has advised me, ASAT is “a standard program for anyone who mentions any drug or alcohol use when entering DOCS in reception or is convicted of either as a part of their crime.” He participated in ASAT at Great Meadow at the beginning of his sentence for three months before being transferred to Eastern. “I tried to get into ASAT to complete it for the Family Reunion Program and to have it out of the way.  [Instead]…I was transferred in a quick fashion to Coxsackie due to the counselor knowing me from the Recovery Center and outside AA/NA groups.”  Now he will have to start the program all over again, most likely at the end of his sentence, which is typically how the system operates.  Once in ASAT, a prisoner is segregated and only able to avail themselves of job programs or study opportunities on a part-time basis.  ASAT can be as corrupt and corrupting as it is beneficial, oftentimes conducted by inmates under the supervision of counselors.  


The young man I write about has spoken intermittently with overworked counselors at each facility. He’s had little access to AA meetings, and no group work at all during the Covid pandemic. Complaints or outside interference are of no use, as they may well bring on retribution. It appears he will have to wait things out for at least three years still ahead of him. A tough row to hoe for anyone, much less someone who may still need to resist the call of a substance, without a strong support network. In the meantime, he works at welding in an Industry program where he recently earned a 26 cent pay increase, is described as a “great welder” by his supervisor, “a pleasure to have in Industry.” 


One can only hope he can weld himself a drug-free future so that he can enjoy the pleasure of freedom in society once he obtains his release.  In August 2016, I wrote the judge to thank him for his consideration. “Mr. [Doe] is but one thread in the connection that ties us in the fight against drugs and addiction.  As I sat in court and those about to be sentenced shuffled in, I could not help but notice how close they all were in age.  You, of course, see this scenario over and over.  For me, it was a refreshing and disturbing reminder of work that needs to be done.” How long will it take for New York State to build a truly comprehensive drug treatment program, both in and out of our prisons and jails? 




The state needs your leadership to start the building of a comprehensive program.  Signing A.533(Rosenthal)/S.1795(Bailey) will be an important first step.


Respectfully yours –


Bill Williams

102 High Meadow Road

Livingston Manor, NY. 12758











[1] The Inmate Exception and Reform of Correctional Health Care

Kevin Fiscella, MD, MPH,  Leo Beletsky, JD, MPH, and  Sarah E. Wakeman, MD


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