The upcoming retirement of the acting commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision will be a positive opportunity for change in the state's prison system, lawmakers said.

DOCCS acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci, 71, will leave office June 9 after serving with the department for 38 years. Annucci, who has served as the department's acting commissioner for the last decade, is stepping down after a medical incident last month during a visit to Spring Spring Correctional Facility in Ossining.

He earns $211,000 annually, according to the department.

"He served the state of New York for several decades and I certainly want to thank him for that service," Assembly Correction Committee chair Erik Dilan said. "He seemed like a man who was pretty fair and extremely proud of the programs that he brought to the day systems to help individuals rehabilitate."

Annucci's nomination was withdrawn last year after state senators refused to vote and officially appoint him beyond acting commissioner of the department.

Dilan says it's a chance for someone to lead the department with a fresh outlook.

"It will be an opportunity to see stuff change at the top," Dilan said, who was named the Correction Committee chair this session. "Obviously, we want someone who will look at [our prison system] from a modern-day perspective because things are always changing and evolving. Hopefully, we can come up with a system that works for the incarcerated individuals and staff."

Annucci declined to be interviewed. He first joined the department in 1984 as deputy counsel. He helped implement changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and drafted the original Limited Credit Time Allowance and Merit Time laws and the original Shock Incarceration law, which saved the state $1.6 billion, according to DOCCS.

DOCCS Executive Deputy Commissioner Daniel F. Martuscello III will assume operational oversight of the agency until Gov. Kathy Hochul nominates a replacement. Martuscello has worked in the department since 1997.

"I congratulate Anthony Annucci on his retirement from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and thank him for his nearly four decades of service to the department," Hochul said in a statement Thursday. "I look forward to working with DOCCS Executive Deputy Commissioner Daniel F. Martuscello III and his team to continue DOCCS' important work as we conduct a thorough search for a commissioner who will lead this department going forward."

Annucci is credited with expanding higher education and college classes, vocational and job training programs in prison. But advocates say a scant percentage of incarcerated New Yorkers have access to opportunities in higher education.

The acting commissioner, originally from Brooklyn, negotiated and implemented new programming to treat incarcerated people suffering from mental illness, according to the department.

The governor can nominate any person to become the next DOCCS chief, but it's unclear how long it will take.

Senators will hold a hearing and vote to reject or appoint the nominee, but they're adamant they will thoroughly vet Hochul's pick before giving an approval.

"We in the Senate have a responsibility to go through this rigorous process and not simply rubber stamp with a nominee," Senate Crime victims, Crime and Correction Committee chair Julia Salazar said Thursday.

The DOCCS commissioner oversees an agency with 44 correctional facilities, approximately 32,000 incarcerated individuals, 18,000 parolees and 23,500 staff. The department's combined annual capital and operations budget is approximately $3.47 billion.

Whoever Hochul nominates will have big shoes to fill to satisfy advocates and correction staff alike, in addition to winning over state senators.

Salazar is hoping for a commissioner focused on reducing suicides in prisons, improved medical care and better treatment of disabled people behind bars.

"This is an opportunity for us to bring some urgently needed change to the Department of Corrections," she said.

 "The senator recounted speaking with Annucci during a public hearing last year.

"It seemed that there was inadequate concern about deaths in facilities, which can be prevented," Salazar said. "When people are in DOCCS custody, certainly when they are receiving mental health treatment, and when someone is in the care of the medical staff in DOCCS, we really should be able to expect that they're not going to be able to take their own life. Those are some tragedies that we've seen unnecessarily in DOCCS facilities in recent years and during Acting Commissioner Annucci's tenure."

Critics of Annucci, including formerly incarcerated people, say he allowed a culture of brutality and racial abuse to continue in state prisons, and that he's refused to mandate staff follow the HALT Act, which limits the use of solitary confinement. A lawsuit filed against DOCCS last month accuses the department of still using solitary confinement improperly and violating the law.

Jose Hamza Saldaña was incarcerated in various state prisons for almost 40 years and says conditions could only improve under a new commissioner.

"I don't see it getting any worse," said Saldaña, director of the Release Aging People in Prison campaign. "Whoever is going to be the commissioner, don't don't do things that will hinder us from growing, from fulfilling our human potential. Don't do what the prison guards want him to do."

Members of the state correction officers union have clashed with Annucci over the years, deepening a shortage of staff amid an uptick in sexual misconduct and violent incidents with people in prison.

State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association President Michael Powers said Annucci has brought about much-needed changes to the department to safeguard staff since he was appointed to the role in 2013. 

"While in many instances we had strong differences of opinions of what was the most efficient and safest way to run the department, our relationship was based on the respect for our roles of running both DOCCS and representing our membership," Powers said 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," Powers continued. "...They deserve to work in an environment where their safety is the utmost priority. We stand willing to work with the new commissioner and his or her staff to provide meaningful solutions to reduce the violence and improve the working and living conditions in those facilities."

Salazar plans to introduce legislation to impose a term limit for all commissioners or members of the governor's cabinet, and legislation to make the state Inspector General's office or another state agency responsible for handling a report of sexual misconduct involving an incarcerated person or prison staff, with reports of sexual assault in correction facilities on the rise.

DOCCS currently handles investigations into those incidents internally.