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Four prisons, including three in the North Country, up for closure (3rd update)

January 20, 2010
By NATHAN BROWN, Enterprise Staff Writer

ELIZABETHTOWN - Gov. David Paterson announced a plan Tuesday in his state budget to close four more prisons, including three in the North Country: Moriah, Lyon Mountain and Ogdensburg.

Shortly after 10 a.m. Tuesday, Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said at a county Board of Supervisors Personnel and Administration meeting that he had received a phone call just after 8 a.m. telling him that Paterson would be proposing the closure of the Moriah Shock Correctional Facility on March 31, 2011.

Paterson would also close the minimum-security Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility in Clinton County, the medium-security Ogdensburg Correctional Facility in St. Lawrence County and the minimum-security portion of Butler Correctional Facility in Wayne County, near Rochester. The Lyon Mountain prison would close in January 2011 and the other two in April 2011.

Article Photos

Gov. David Paterson explains his executive budget proposal during a speech in Albany on Tuesday.
(AP photo — Tim Roske)

According to a briefing book on Paterson's 2010-11 Executive Budget, consolidating dormitories and closing these four prisons would save $7 million in the 2010-11 budget and $52 million in the 2011-12 budget. The closures would eliminate 572 staff positions, including 419 uniformed officers.

The state Department of Correctional Services "anticipates offering a fillable vacancy to every affected uniformed employee" and will try to do the same for civilian employees, according to a fact sheet on its Web site. About 84 security staff leave the state's payroll every month, according to DOCS, and the department anticipates being able to offer positions via attrition.

Shock incarceration is usually only available to first-time offenders and offers earlier release than a normal prison sentence after completing an intensive six-month, boot-camp-like program.

Moriah Shock had 102 employees and 170 inmates as of Dec. 31, 2009. It has 300 beds, but only 200 of them are in staffed housing units. It opened in 1988. The mine, which was the main employer in Moriah for years, closed in 1970, and the shock camp incorporated some of the old mine buildings as inmate dormitories. Scozzafava said one of the main reasons the camp was put in Moriah was to provide jobs in a town that was economically devastated when the mine closed.

"If the prison closes, those buildings will sit there vacant for the next 50 years because we're in the Adirondack Park," Scozzafava said.

The 11 inmate work crews at Moriah provide a variety of services to the community, including helping the state Department of Environmental Conservation with trail maintenance and maintaining the county fairgrounds in Westport. In Saranac Lake, Moriah inmates are expected to help build the Ice Palace for this year's Winter Carnival, taking over a job previously done by inmates of the Camp Gabriels prison, which closed last year.

"We've come to rely on utilizing them to cut the cost of government to the local taxpayers," said Westport Supervisor Dan Connell. "You cut some state funding when you close the prison, but you're putting a lot of that cut right back on the local taxpayers."

"It's hard for me to fathom, yet again, that after the incompetence that led to that (Crown Point) bridge closure, they would do that to Moriah," said Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston. "From everything I've read and understand, the shock camps work."

Preston said the town of Wilmington uses crews from the camp extensively for spring cleanup of cemeteries and parks.

"Quite frankly, we can't afford to hire out the work they accomplish," Preston said.

The DOCS Web site says drops in crime, a reduction in the number of drug offenders sent to prison and the implementation of early release programs have resulted in a drop in inmate populations, a trend that is expected to continue. The New York state prison population has fallen nearly 8 percent in the last three years, from 63,304 to 58,378.

According to DOCS, closing Moriah Shock would save $9.5 million in annual operating costs and $695,000 in five-year capital construction costs. Closing Lyon Mountain, which had 91 employees and 135 inmates in 162 beds as of Dec. 31, 2009, would save $7.2 million in annual operating costs and $950,000 in capital by avoiding various projects over the next three years.

Ogdensburg had 287 employees as of Dec. 31, 2009; 612 beds, only 490 of them in staffed housing units; and 474 inmates. Closing it would save $23.9 million in annual operating costs and $12.4 million in avoiding five-year capital costs.

The minimum-security portion of Butler had 67 employees as of Dec. 31, 2009, and 72 inmates, with 288 beds total and 144 of them in staffed housing units. Closing it would save $5.2 million in annual operating costs, according to DOCS.

Scozzafava questioned the locations of the prisons chosen to close - three out of four are in the North Country, and none are downstate. He also questioned whether the closures would save money, given the economic problems they would cause the affected areas.

"Ultimately, we're going to be losing more people out of the Adirondacks," Scozzafava said.

Camp Gabriels closed last year as part of the state budget. Various reuse possibilities were discussed, but the site now sits unused and no alternate use seems to be in sight. Gov. Eliot Spitzer had also proposed closing it the year before, but it was kept open longer after widespread protest from unions and elected officials.

Gabriels, Moriah and Lyon Mountain all fall within the state Senate district of Betty Little, R-Queensbury.

"Since entering the Senate, I have heard my downstate Democratic colleagues repeatedly call to close our upstate facilities, often citing what they believe to be an unfair counting of inmates in the federal census," Little said in a prepared statement after the budget was released. "Closures not only directly impact those employed at correctional facilities, but there's also a ripple effect that is tough for rural and economically depressed communities in the North Country to absorb. Camp Gabriels, closed last year, now sits empty. I don't want to see the same thing happen at Lyon Mountain or Moriah."

In a prepared statement, New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association President Donn Rowe called the proposed closures a threat to both public and corrections officer safety.

"Any cuts to the Department of Corrections should start with the top-heavy bloated bureaucracy within the agency," Rowe said.

Scozzafava said he has not been able to obtain an answer from DOCS as to why Moriah was selected for closure, and not one of the other three shock camps in the state. He said he has spoken to Little and state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro, and plans to obtain copies of the budgets of all the shock camps.

"We're going to fight this all the way," Scozzafava said. "We're going to fight it with facts, and that's what I'm trying to gather right now."

After Tuesday's committee meetings, Scozzafava stopped at the prison and talked to many of the employees. He said they were only notified this morning of the closure plans.

"People build their lives around their employer," Scozzafava said. "Absolutely, there's a lot of fear."

Even if the corrections officers can get jobs at other prisons, Scozzafava said, that could mean they would have to move or make a much longer commute to take those jobs.

"The bottom line is, they're going to have to make some very life-changing choices if that facility closes," Scozzafava said.

Jay Supervisor and Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas said he received the same phone call as Scozzafava this morning and said he had requested a personal meeting with Paterson. Supervisors said they need to work together to prevent the closure.

"It does have a devastating effect on all of us in Essex County," Douglas said.

Douglas suggested drawing up a plan to work with Clinton County to keep Moriah and Lyon Mountain open so the two counties aren't competing.



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