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NYS closing 6 correctional facilities

An empty prison cell
File Photo

New York state is closing six correctional facilities.

A statement released Monday by the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said it is closing Ogdensburg Correctional Facility in St. Lawrence County, Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Essex County, Willard Drug Treatment Campus in Seneca County, the ultra-maximum security Southport Correctional Facility south of Elmira, Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill and the Rochester Correctional Facility as of March 10, 2022.

The state said it was able to absorb the incarcerated population into vacant beds available at other institutions, and relocate drug treatment campus functions to Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Chautauqua County. Rochester's work release program will be moved to Orleans Correctional Facility in Albion.

Moriah Town Supervisor Tom Scozzafava was in a meeting Tuesday morning when someone from town told him the local prison was closing. Scozzafava reached out to someone higher up in government to check if it was true.

“I sent a text to our state senator, Dan Stec and he hadn’t even heard it yet," said Scozzafava.

By 11 a.m., though, the news had been confirmed. Scozzafava said he was surprised that Moriah Shock was on that list. It’s one of only two minimum-security facilities in the state that focuses on preparing inmates for life after prison.

“This facility is the shining star when it comes to incarceration because it actually turns the inmates, when they’re released, into productive citizens again," said Scozzafava.

But like most prisons in the North Country, there just aren’t as many people behind bars as there were a few decades ago or even just a few years ago.

The region's inmate population has been dwindling for decades, down by 45% since 2017. As of June 2021, there were about 7,300 men behind bars in the North Country and 6,200 people employed at facilities across the region, as of 2020.

According to DOCCS, Moriah Shock is currently 25% full, with 74 incarcerated individuals and 107 people on staff, while the state prison in Ogdensburg is 28% full, with 158 people incarcerated and 268 staff.

The drop in inmate population is reflected statewide, peaking in 1999, when there were 72,773 people behind bars. As of June 2021, there were 31,903 people incarcerated around the state, a 56% decline.

The state legislature, in the 2021 budget, authorized the governor to close additional prisons this year "as is safe and fiscally appropriate," according to DOCCS.

DOCCS said when reviewing which prisons to close, officials consider "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."

 Lunchtime in the mess hall at Moriah Shock prison in Essex County.
Natasha Haverty
Lunchtime in the mess hall at Moriah Shock prison in Essex County.

Scozzafava knows all this, but he also knows how important the facility is for the local economy. Moriah Shock employs 107 people in the area.

“It’s absolutely going to be an economic devastation for this community," said Scozzafava. "It’s a facility that I seriously doubt that they’re going to find any reuse for.”

State Senator Dan Stec, whose district includes Moriah, said he also doubts the state will reinvest in the community after the prison closes.

“The state of New York and the Department of Corrections has a poor track record when it comes to other closures," said Stec.

Once a public school, the Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility operated from 1984 until 2011. Photo: New York state.

"If someone asks me what the future holds in store for Moriah? You go look at Lyon Mountain and see what happened there because Lyon Mountain looks like a ghost town," said Stec.

Lyon Mountain is one of six correctional facilities the state has closed in the North Country the last 12 years. All are still empty.

State Senator Patty Ritchie, whose district includes Ogdensburg, said in a statement she was "deeply disappointed and angered" that the local prison is closing down. Nearly 260 people work at that facility.

But criminal justice advocates are applauding the latest round of prison closures. Janos Marton is the director of Dream Corps Justice, a national prison reform group based in New York. He said closing six more prisons shows that reforms are working.

“This is great news for New York," said Marton. "We have a sprawling, aging prison system that no longer reflects the needs of the state when it comes to how many people are incarcerated and it really tracks with what we’re learning over the past decades.”

The strict Rockefeller drug laws were repealed a little over a decade ago, which is one of the main reasons there are tens of thousands of fewer New Yorkers in prison today.

Both Governors Andrew Cuomo and Kathy Hochul have signed sweeping reforms aimed at changing a system that has disproportionately put Black and Brown New Yorkers behind bars.

WBFO's Marian Hetherly contributed to this story.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's Director of News and Public Affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.