Prison Towns Worry Closures Could Upend Communities

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to shutter as many as 10 prisons statewide in order to cut costs, but officials in the primarily upstate New York communities that house correctional facilities are concerned about job loss.

The governor has argued that using prisons as job development programs is immoral and that mothballing the facilities is about saving money. Closing unneeded prisons would save more than $72 million next year and $112 million the following year, according to budget document released Wednesday.

"We are not talking about releasing prisoners," said Cuomo, who is offering a $10 million redevelopment fund to communities facing prison closures. "We are talking about consolidating prisons and unused space."

The Cuomo administration, which will help create a new panel that will identify what prisons ought to be closed after the budget is approved, said New York now has more than 3,500 prison bed in minimum- and medium-security prisons that sit empty.

State Senator Betty Little from Queensbury has several prisons in her district and said it's difficult not knowing how closures could affect her community.

"I don't know, and it is a concern," she said.  "If you're closing a small facility with 200 or 300 beds, you're going to have to have more facility closures."

Donn Rowe, president of NYSCOPBA, the union that represents corrections officers, declined to be interviewed Wednesday but argued in a statement that prisons are too full and closures could result in "overcrowding and dangerous conditions."

But prison reform advocate Bob Gangi praised the plan and said concerns about overcrowding are unfounded.

"This proposal to close as many as 3,500 beds is a very positive move in terms of creating a more efficient and human prison system," Gangi said.

Governors have been trying to close prisons for years, beginning with George Pataki in the 90s. They have been thwarted by Republicans in the state Senate, who have generally viewed correctional facilities as an important source of upstate jobs.

One possible game-changer this year is a promise by Cuomo to compensate towns that lose prisons.

"We understand your situation and your problem: a community that is going to deal with the loss of a prison will receive a $10 million economic transformation program grant," he said.

State Senator Patty Ritchie from Heuvelton also has half a dozen state prisons in her district.  She said that redevelopment fund might convince some prison towns that it’s time to consider a different future.

"There might be some areas where the $10 million economic boost would be more appealing than keeping the facility open," she said.

Cuomo also wants the legislature to eliminate a 12-month waiting period now required before prisons can close.  If he gets his way, corrections facilities could start shutting down as early as this summer.