Hochul Quietly Nominates a Permanent Prison Chief

The Senate will consider Daniel Martuscello III’s bid to run New York’s prison and parole agency. His supporters point to his decades of experience. His opponents say that’s the problem.

Chris Gelardi   ·   May 22, 2024
Three men in suits, including former acting prison commissioner Anthony Annucci and acting prison commissioner Daniel Martuscello III, stand at a memorial ceremony in Albany.
Daniel Martuscello III (right) stands with his old boss, Anthony Annucci (left), at a 2018 memorial ceremony for parole and corrections officers in Albany. | NYS DOCCS

Update: May 23, 2024 — On Wednesday, the Senate corrections and finance committees voted to move forward with Martuscello’s nomination. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed him, along with a member of the State Commission of Correction, by a vote of 37 to 19.

It’s been 11 years since New York’s prison system had a proper leader. State legislators are being given roughly 48 hours to consider whether to appoint one.

Daniel Martuscello III has been leading New York’s prison and parole agency in an acting capacity — that is, without confirmation from the state Senate — for a year, having taken over for his boss, who ran the agency from a similar legal purgatory for a decade. Without the usual public announcement, Governor Kathy Hochul nominated Martuscello for the permanent job on Monday, legislators told New York Focus. Senate staff scheduled his initial confirmation hearing for Wednesday morning.

In many ways, Martuscello is the natural next in line for the job. He’s worked at the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, for nearly three decades, and was the second-in-command for six years before taking over. He seems to be the only candidate the governor considered. A former DOCCS director of reentry, Vanda Seward, had launched an informal campaign for the nomination, backed by a fraternal organization representing Black law enforcement officers. She said that she requested an audience with the governor’s office — which did not respond to questions before press time — but received no response.

“We find it troubling that the process was not fair, transparent, and inclusive,” the fraternal organization, known as the Grand Council of Guardians, wrote in a letter to legislators.

Officials who interact with Martuscello describe him as sharp, with a wealth of institutional knowledge. He’s “very professional and clearly has necessary experience,” Patrick Gallivan, the top Republican on the Senate corrections committee, said over text.

Others view his time near the top as a liability. DOCCS, which incarcerates some 32,000 people with long felony sentences and monitors the state’s parolees, is routinely embroiled in scandals ranging from violence to abuse to corruption. In a letter sent to the governor and state legislators Tuesday, dozens of advocacy and legal groups argued that “Acting Commissioner Martuscello is deeply entrenched in, and continues to perpetuate, the deplorable status quo of the racist, brutal, and corrupt state prison system.”

“He truly seems to care about making DOCCS work better for everyone.”

—Julia Salazar, Senate corrections committee chair

Among the letter’s more recent examples is a lockdown at Green Haven Correctional Facility that took place in October, on Martuscello’s watch. Incarcerated people allege that DOCCS security forces descended on the facility, punching them in their faces, kicking their genitals, gouging their eyes, and slamming their heads against walls. Two men claim that guards waterboarded them. The acting commissioner told the press that an instance of “incarcerated against incarcerated” violence spurred the lockdown, but has shared no details since.

Martuscello has pitched himself as a reformer, fielding policy ideas from prisoners’ rights advocates and promising to increase programs available to incarcerated people, advocates said. Decision-makers have found his campaign compelling.

“He truly seems to care about making DOCCS work better for everyone, including and especially incarcerated individuals,” Julia Salazar, chair of the Senate corrections committee, told New York Focus this month. She pointed to Martuscello’s near-immediate rescinding of a likely illegal directive his predecessor put in place, which ordered guards to shackle people sentenced to isolation for hours during classroom-style programming. While Salazar is pushing for rapid changes at DOCCS, observers should have “reasonable expectations” about how much one person can overhaul a 44-facility prison agency in less than a year, she said.

Salazar’s impression likely matters more than anyone’s. As head of the relevant committee, she holds particular sway over the outcome of Wednesday’s initial confirmation vote — power she’s flexed in the past. In 2022, she helped lead a group of legislators in rejecting Martuscello’s predecessor’s nomination, citing what they saw as evidence of illegal prison conditions and unchecked violence during his tenure. The predecessor, Anthony Annucci, was allowed to remain acting commissioner, unconfirmed, until his retirement.

Whatever Martuscello’s pitch for reform, advocates argue that he isn’t following through on it. They pointed to a 2022 policy banning homemade care packages in favor of expensive pre-approved vendors that Martuscello hasn’t rescinded.

Their letter this week also noted that, under Martuscello, DOCCS has continued to violate a solitary confinement reform law that went into effect over two years ago. The latest available data show that DOCCS continues to hold hundreds of people with mental illnesses in solitary confinement or long-term isolation, despite the reform law banning isolation for anyone with a disability, which Salazar sponsored. The agency did not respond to a request for comment.

The Senate’s corrections and finance committees will question Martuscello and vote on whether to advance his nomination Wednesday. If he advances, the full Senate will likely take up a vote in the coming days. Both Salazar and Gallivan said they plan to withhold their final decision until they’re able to question the nominee.

“People who are executives [at DOCCS], they just slide in the position,” Seward said. She framed her bid for the position as a way to wrest the prison system from the old guard that Martuscello represents.

“It’s not about me,” she said. The department “needs someone who’s a change agent.”

Sam Mellins contributed reporting.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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