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Falling inmate numbers push more state prison closures

Gowanda Correctional Facility is among the latest prisons being decommissioned.

Anthony Annucci, acting commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, stopped short of putting a number on how many state prisons might be mothballed under the governor's downsizing plan. But he argued more closures are warranted, after the prison system shed more than 11,000 inmates since January 2020, leaving fewer than 33,200 inmates in 52 facilities spread across the state.

A Cuomo administration representative revealed plans Wednesday to shutter additional state prisons by early 2023. As the result of budget decisions made by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year, the state is now in the process of decommissioning three prisons: Gowanda, Watertown and the Clinton Annex in Dannemora.

“Based on the continued decline of the incarcerated population, we anticipate additional facility closures in the upcoming two fiscal years,” said Annucci, describing a period running from April 1 to March 31, 2023.

The commissioner said the state has closed a total of 18 facilities since 2011, achieving more than $290 million in savings without laying off any staffers. In the aftermath of the dramatic reductions in the number of people held in prison, he said New York “remains one of the safest large states in the country.”

Cuomo’s efforts to trim the number of prisons has produced strong reactions, laying bare the upstate/downstate divide at the statehouse. In upstate regions, prisons have been job generators, providing stable sources of income for thousands of families. Many downstate representatives, meanwhile, are aligned with reform activists who argue the prisons perpetuate racial inequities in the criminal justice system.

Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) lamented that more prisons aren’t being closed, saying targeting three out of 52 facilities for closure now “is not a great ratio when we have the tools to make sure people can recover from addiction when they are ready to.”

Michael Powers, president of the New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association, said the state should be examining ways to protect staffers and inmates from the spread of coronavirus behind bars through social distancing measures. He maintained the closure of additional facilities during the pandemic will increase risks.

Powers also drew a connection between an increase in violent crime across the state and the state’s effort to release more prisoners.

“Violent crime has gone through the roof, but they are not addressing that,” he said.

An ally of the corrections officers, state Sen. Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) said Annucci’s statement that more prison closures are in the offing is “bad news.”

“So-called bail reform and quickly closing upstate prisons are part of an agenda that seems intent on sacrificing public safety for downstate political gains,” Stec said.

Annucci, responding to queries from lawmakers, signaled his agency has plans to hire new corrections officers, noting there are plans for “a couple” of training academy classes in the upcoming fiscal year. He noted the Corrections Department is experiencing retirements at the rate of 54-58 staffers per bi-weekly pay period.

He also acknowledged he was unaware when his agency would produce an updated study on recidivism rates, but said his staff has been “working tirelessly” to produce “real-time data” that will be posted on its web site.

Updating lawmakers on pandemic supplies manufactured behind bars since last March, Annucci said inmates produced 11 million containers of hand sanitizer, more than 89,000 protective gowns and more than 2 million face masks.

The role of inmates in turning out the products has proven to be a sore point for some prison reformers who support legislation calling for higher minimum pay for inmate labor.

Inmates now earn about 60 cents per hour on average, but the pay would go to $3 hourly under legislation authored by Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn).

Annucci said included in the wave of inmates released over the past year were 3,555 individuals freed after the agency “leveraged existing laws” that determined they were eligible to return to communities and 791 parolees who had been held in local jails.

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