Prison Chief Anthony Annucci to Retire

Annucci has been characterized as an institutionalist loyal to the prison system above all else — even, at times, the law.

Maia Hibbett   ·   May 18, 2023
Collage of photos of Anthony Annucci
Anthony Annucci led the prison and parole agency for 10 years – but legislators have never approved him for the job. | Maia Hibbett for New York Focus

After almost four decades with New York’s prison system, Anthony Annucci is on his way out. The head of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced his impending retirement on Wednesday. His last day is June 9, and his retirement will be effective August 11.

Starting with DOCCS in 1984 as deputy counsel, and staying with the department until former Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed him acting commissioner on May 1, 2013, Annucci has been characterized as an institutionalist loyal to the prison system above all else — even, at times, the law. Under his tenure, DOCCS has resisted reforms and legislative interventions, including a recent overhaul of New York’s solitary confinement law and a mandate to release people jailed for technical parole violations.

This month marks 10 years of his work leading the agency — but legislators have never approved him for the job. Formally, his title has remained “acting commissioner” throughout the decade.

When Governor Kathy Hochul brought Annucci before the Senate for confirmation as commissioner last year, the corrections and finance committees grilled him about prison deaths, violence, and sexual abuse, and they ultimately opted not to recommend his confirmation. Hochul tabled the nomination; Annucci canceled an appearance at another hearing two days later; and nothing else changed.

As New York Focus reported this month, a man incarcerated in one of Annucci’s prisons filed a lawsuit last year in an attempt to force the acting commissioner into retirement, arguing his perpetual temporary status violates the state constitution. Annucci’s impending retirement, first reported by Spectrum News and confirmed by DOCCS, comes just over two weeks after the state replied with its latest appeal.

Now it falls to Hochul to choose a new commissioner to oversee prisons and parole in New York state. That could set up the administration’s next political battle over a potentially controversial appointment — or, if Hochul sidelines the Senate again, could leave New York with another prison chief who is effectively permanent, but formally temporary.

In the meantime, DOCCS Executive Deputy Commissioner Daniel F. Martuscello III will oversee prisons, the department told New York Focus. Hochul’s office did not immediately respond to New York Focus’s request to comment.

In a memo to prison superintendents reviewed by New York Focus, Annucci attributed his decision to retire to a medical incident in April. “While I was cleared medically, this event has caused me to rethink my immediate family,” he wrote.

The Correctional Association of New York, a watchdog organization that monitors prisons that has tussled with DOCCS for access to their facilities, praised Annucci for championing rehabilitative programs, managing prisons through a pandemic, and implementing reforms passed by the legislature. “We commend these important achievements, and call upon the next commissioner to uphold the Governor’s signature commitment to transparency by ushering in a new era of openness within DOCCS,” executive director Jennifer Scaife said in a statement.

Under Annucci, New York state prisons have seen surging outbreaks of Covid-19, allegations of unchecked sexual assault by prison staff, and commissary prices so high, many incarcerated people can’t afford food. The Department has implemented policies banning most packages sent by family members of those locked in the prisons, restricting the scope of parole laws meant to get people released sooner, and — in a directive issued by Annucci himself — ordering guards to illegally shackle people to desks during recreation time.

In many areas, Annucci has successfully resisted oversight and intervention. Senators’ public comments on solitary confinement have been largely ignored, terminally ill prisoners’ requests for compassionate release have been blocked, monitoring of the prison medical system has been forestalled. Some lawmakers have objected, but on the whole they’ve tended to let it slide.

David Weprin, who until last year chaired the Assembly’s corrections committee, told New York Focus that Annucci “will go down in the history books as a progressive commissioner who expanded educational and vocational opportunities for incarcerated individuals throughout New York State” and who “truly believed in the department’s goal of ‘correction’ as opposed to ‘punishment.’ ”

Julia Salazar, chair of the Senate’s corrections committee, by contrast, told New York Focus that Annucci’s resignation “brings an opportunity for critical change.”

“I could not recommend that Annucci’s nomination be confirmed, nor could the majority of my colleagues on our committee and the Senate Finance Committee,” she said in a statement, referring to last year’s confirmation process. “This demonstrates our desire to see new leadership in DOCCS: a Commissioner who will ensure that DOCCS complies with the HALT Solitary Confinement law; who acts urgently to stop the preventable deaths of incarcerated individuals in DOCCS’s custody; who will take sexual misconduct and assault seriously for the sake of both incarcerated individuals and staff; and much more.”

Prison reform advocates slammed the acting commissioner’s record. Jerome Wright, co-director of the HALT Solitary Campaign, said in a statement that “Annucci left the prisons worse than when he came in, creating an environment on par with the conditions that led up to the Attica rebellion.” Jose Saldana, director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, said that Hochul and the Senate have “an opportunity to nominate and confirm a person who will not carry on Annucci’s legacy.”

A preoccupation of most jail and prison chiefs is to manage the often fraught relationships with their own officers. “While in many instances, we had strong differences of opinions … our relationship was based on the respect for our roles of running both DOCCS and representing our membership,” Michael Powers, president of the union that represents New York’s correctional officers, told New York Focus in a statement. “We look forward to working with the new administration to address the unprecedented level of violence that currently exists inside our correctional facilities.”

“It has been an honor and a privilege to oversee the Department for the last ten years,” Annucci told DOCCS staff in a statement provided by the department. “I believe that we are the best Corrections and Community Supervision agency in the country, and the men and women who work in our prisons and community supervision offices are truly unsung heroes.”

This story has been updated with statements by Jerome Wright, Jose Saldana, Senator Julia Salazar, and Assemblymember David Weprin sent after publication.

Maia Hibbett is New York Focus’s managing editor. She was previously an associate politics editor at The Intercept, working with staff investigative reporters, editorial fellows, and freelancers. Before that, she worked as an interim editor at The Nation and as a fact checker… more
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