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Governor’s budget would close Camp Gabriels (third update)

December 16, 2008

SARANAC LAKE - Gov. David Paterson's 2009-10 budget would close Camp Gabriels and all three other minimum-security state prison "camps," according to the budget posted on the state Division of Budget's Web site.

Camp Gabriels has roughly 150 employees, about two-thirds of whom are corrections officers; the rest are civilian staff.

The inmate numbers at all four prisons are at less than 47 percent of capacity, according to the Web site. The reason for the proposed closure, as stated in Paterson's budget, is "to eliminate excess capacity in the prison system."

Article Photos

Camp Gabriels union worlers rally to keep the minimum-security prison open in February at the Harrietstown Town Hall in Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise file photo — Heather Sackett)

The other three camps are Mount McGregor Camp in Saratoga County, Camp Pharsalia in Chenango County and Camp Georgetown in Madison County. In addition, the state Department of Correctional Services would close several annexes.

All told, closing the four camps would reduce the DOCS workforce by 550 positions - all accomplished through attrition, none with layoffs - and save $26 million in 2009-10 and $29 million the following fiscal year, DOCS spokeswoman Linda Foglia said Tuesday.

In January of this year, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced a similar plan to close four prisons with low inmate populations, including Camp Gabriels. A vigorous effort by local people, prison worker unions and Republican state legislators staved off that effort, and Paterson - having then just ascended to being governor after a Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal - agreed to keep the prisons open for at least another year.

Local leaders and institutions, in concert with state Sen. Betty Little, Assemblywoman Janet Duprey and DOCS, have tried to organize a plan to save the prison by turning it into a model for rehabilitating nonviolent inmates for more productive lives after their release. St. Joseph's Rehabilitation Center in Saranac Lake could offer addiction counseling, Paul Smith's College might offer culinary vocational training, and North Country Community College could offer basic general education classes. The prison already has an active work program in local municipal parks and facilities, which is particularly noticeable in the village of Saranac Lake.

The Paterson administration, however, has proposed to close the prisons instead. This budget is not final; it must go through the state Legislature first.

"She certainly doesn't support closing Camp Gabriels," said Little spokesman Dan Mac Entee. "I think many of the arguments we made last year for keeping it open remain the same."

Mac Entee said, however, this time the state is facing an "unprecedented budget deficit," which will make it that much more difficult to convince the state to keep it open.

Mac Entee said there was an assurance earlier this year that no prison closures would be proposed in the 2009-10 budget.

"But the state fiscal crisis has worsened considerably," Mac Entee said. "So, in light of that fact, it is not a complete surprise that these types of cuts are being proposed by the executive.

Mac Entee said Little's concern, first and foremost, is to make sure that the safety of correctional officers is not endangered by putting them in overcrowded facilities. He also said no concrete proposals for alternate uses for the facility have been made yet.

"We can fight the fight again," Duprey said Tuesday afternoon. "We can certainly present the same arguments as last time. The impact on the community, we know, is large."

Duprey said she would be speaking with Little later to see what they can do and that she would also be speaking to representatives of the prison employees' unions. But she said it will be very difficult to convince the state not to close the prison.

"It was hard last time," she said. "It's going to be even worse this time."

Duprey said DOCS Commissioner Brian Fischer "seemed to understand the value" of Camp Gabriels when he visited it earlier this year. She said she hopes Camp Gabriels can be converted to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility.

St. Joseph's CEO Bob Ross - who was in Albany waiting to hear whether the state would release funds for his facility to build a center to treat Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans for addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder - said the proposed closing of Camp Gabriels "is disappointing on a number of levels." He said treating nonviolent drug offenders to overcome their addictions would reduce recidivism and probably save the state more money in the long term than closing the prisons.

"There is an opportunity for a purpose change to ... serve not just the region but the state as a whole," Ross said. "That's a benefit that might more than offset costs."

He compared it to how, in the 1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration cut the New York City budget by closing neighborhood health clinics. Ross said this move ended up costing the city more than it saved because it forced Medicaid patients to seek basic treatment in emergency rooms, where is costs much more to treat a patient.

Asked about this proposal to "repurpose" Camp Gabriels, DOCS Director of Public Information Erik Kriss said, "We at Correctional Services would not run such a facility."

Kriss said DOCS might recognize the value in a legitimate plan to turn Camp Gabriels into a treatment or vocational facility, "but it would not be a prison, and we run prisons.

"We don't have enough inmates to keep all these prisons open," he said.


(updated for the third time at 3:41 p.m.)



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