Prison closures shock and dismay correction officers, lawmakers

Jul 30, 2013

Correction officers say they are still in shock after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s prison agency announced late on a July Friday - and with very little advance warning - their decision to close four prisons within the next year. Now, they're asking the legislature to rescind the closures.

Normally, when a governor wants to close a prison or any other state run facility, he proposes the change in his state budget plan in January. The legislature either agrees or disagrees, and a final decision to close or to keep the facility open is made in the completed state spending plan.

But Cuomo’s Department of Corrections decided on a slow summer Friday afternoon, and five weeks after the legislative session ended, to announce that four prisons would be shuttered by July 26, 2014, citing a declining inmate population.   

The president of the union that represents prison guards, Donn Rowe, says he was stunned when he first received word early Friday morning.

“Obviously, myself and my members were shocked,” Rowe said.

The prisons to be closed include three medium security prisons, Mt. McGregor in Saratoga County; Chateaugay in Franklin County; and Butler in Wayne County. Also on the closure list is Monterey Shock, a minimum-security prison in Schuyler County. The four prisons employ 675 people.

A press release from the governor’s corrections agency, titled “Right Sizing New York’s Prison System," cites as the reasons the “dramatic reduction in the number of drug offenders.” New York recently eased its strict Rockefeller-era drug laws. The agency says violent crime is also declining, and the overall prison population has shrunk by one quarter since a high point in 1999.

But Rowe, with the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, says that’s not the full story. He says in 1999, the prisons were severely overcrowded and many prisoners were double bunked, creating potentially dangerous conditions. He also says as fewer people are convicted and sentenced for lesser drug crimes, the inmate population overall has grown more violent and dangerous.

“Seventy percent of our inmate population are violent offenders,” said Rowe. “We have maximum security inmates in medium security facilities because we don’t have the maximum space for them.”

Rowe says 8,000 prisoners are still double bunked, and says the newest round of downsizing comes after the Cuomo administration closed 11 other prisons and correctional centers in recent years.

The Department of Corrections says none of the 675 staff members at the four prisons will lose their jobs - all will be offered positions at other prisons or other state agencies. But in the vast regions of upstate, prisons are often several hours apart and Rowe says many who choose to stay will be uprooted.

“It’s going to cause a void in the community,” said Rowe. Corrections officers may also serve as volunteer firefighters or Little League coaches in their towns.

“The employee has to either look to transfer far away in the state, or leave the state,” Rowe said.  

The Department of Corrections spokesman declined to do a recorded interview to answer the union’s concerns.  But spokesman Tom Mailey, in an email, says under state law, the governor’s agencies do not have to seek approval from the legislature to close a prison as long as a one year notice is given.

It’s estimated the changes will save $30 million.  

Some state lawmakers representing districts who have the prisons slated for closure are also upset. Sen. Kathy Marchione, whose district includes Mount McGregor, the largest prison on the closure list, says in a statement that the news is disappointing. She is demanding an action plan to make sure workers will still have jobs and the surrounding community won’t suffer economic hardship.  

Rowe says he hopes the legislature will convince the governor to reconsider.