Hochul administration eyeing more prison closures
ALBANY — The Hochul administration is zooming in at the state’s portfolio of 50 prisons to find ones that will be closed under a consolidation plan expected to be announced by year’s end.
While the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has yet to disclose the specific prisons that might be targeted, two state lawmakers from the North Country said the closure plan would have to be undraped by December 31.
But a formal announcement could come as early as this month, due to concerns that an announcement in late December would mar the holiday season for the scores of workers who would be impacted by potential transfers to other facilities.
“They ruined everybody’s Christmas last year,” said John Roberts, northern regional vice president for the New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association. He was referring to the fact that last December, the administration of then Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that three prisons would be closed earlier this year — the Clinton Correctional Facility Annex in Dannemora as well as the medium security facilities at Gowanda and Watertown.
Stec, Jones react
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, and Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, both said they are vigorously opposed to additional closures of prisons in the North Country, a region that has already experienced the mothballing of several facilities over the past decade.
Jones said the mothballed prisons too often leave local communities struggling with blight and scrambling to find new purposes for “an eyesore.”
Stec said the justification for closing prisons — a steep drop in the inmate population — is flawed because the decrease, in his view, stems from a Democratic Party push for alternatives to incarceration and approving parole for more inmates.
“This is what happens when you begin decriminalizing everything,” said Stec.
The state prison population, according to data updated Monday, stands at 31,555 inmates, reflecting a 56.6% decrease from the 72,649 prisoners held in 1999.
Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters last week she is exploring finding alternative uses for prisons that become decommissioned, perhaps converting them to substance abuse treatment centers.
“I’m looking at the costs and also the opportunities associated with converting them to a different purpose,” she said.
Responding to an inquiry from CNHI, Tom Mailey, spokesman for the state prisons system, acknowledged: “DOCCS is carefully reviewing the operations at its 50 correctional facilities for possible closure. This review is based on a variety of factors, including but not limited to physical infrastructure, program offerings, facility security level, specialized medical and mental health services, other facilities in the area to minimize the impact to staff, potential reuse options and areas of the State where prior closures have occurred in order to minimize the impact to communities.”
The agency, he noted, has been working closely with various unions and employees impacted by closures will receive priority consideration for employment at the remaining facilities.
See no layoffs
The agency envisions there will be no layoffs, Mailey said.
“DOCCS will also work cooperatively with the Office of General Services and Economic Development to facilitate the re-use of the closed facilities,” Mailey added. “Upon closure, DOCCS will begin the decommission process in order to protect the State assets for potential re-use.”
Twenty prisons have been shut over the last decade, producing an overall annual savings to the state of some $300 million and eliminating some 10,000 beds, according to DOCCS.
At a legislative hearing in February, Anthony Annucci, the DOCCS commissioner, testified: “Based on the continued decline of the incarcerated population, we anticipate additional facility closures in the upcoming two fiscal years.” That suggests the next prisons targeted for closure would be shut down by March 31, 2023.
Last month, 57 newly recruited corrections officers completed classroom training at the agency’s academy in Albany. They then began four weeks of on-the-job training before being assigned to a facility.
Closing prisons in the downstate region may be more challenging for state officials now due to “proximity” legislation enacted last year. It requires the state to place parents who are incarcerated in correctional facilities in close proximity to their children.
According to lawmakers who authored that measure, 63% of inmates are sent to facilities more than 100 miles from their families.