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State announces right decision wrong way

The news that the state plans to close prisons in Dannemora (the Clinton Annex, not the main Clinton Correctional Facility), Watertown and Gowanda is another shot in the gut to our region economically.

It is absolutely understandable that employees at the facilities are upset. State officials have said staff at the three prison facilities will receive priority placement for transfers to other state prison facilities, but who wants to receive the news that they are either out of a job or uprooting their family at Christmastime? The timing stunk, a fact brought up at a rally outside the Gowanda facility by state Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the prison closures are the sort of downsizing that New York state needs to do as its population — both prison and taxpaying — shrinks. There are fewer people in prison now than at any time in recent memory. The state is facing a budgetary shortfall caused by COVID-19’s hit to state revenues and New York’s decades-long profligate spending habits. Saving money by closing prisons makes financial sense.

We can’t argue over and over and over again for the state to make tough decisions on spending and then complain when the cuts come our way.

That said, Borrello does make a good point about the process the state used in closing the three prisons. The 2020-21 state budget gave the governor the authority to close an unspecified number of prisons with 90 days’ notice. In eight months, the state made the decision to close the prison but did little else regarding the Gowanda Correctional Facility. Borrello said he would have liked to see more work in transition planning and facility repurposing.

“It is a poor way of managing what is arguably one of the state’s most critical operations and a terrible way to treat public servants who have devoted themselves to the important work and rehabilitation that takes place inside these walls,” Borrello said.

He’s right.

The state needs to make difficult decisions, but it needs to make them the right way. These three communities will soon find themselves left with big buildings that need new purposes, plus a large number of residents added to the already long list of county residents struggling through pandemic-fueled economic doldrums. Gowanda, with 600 employees, is the biggest of the three facilities being closed.

The state has made the right decision for the state budget, but it did so in a heartless way, both for the employees involved and the communities that have long depended on these prisons for employment.

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