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Union assails decision to close four prisons

WBFO News file photo

Correction officers say they are still in “shock”, that late on a July Friday, with very little advance warning, Governor Cuomo’s prison agency announced the closure of four prisons within the next year. They are 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. Then, the legislature either agrees or disagrees, and a final decision to close or to keep the facility is made in the completed state spending plan.

But Governor Cuomo’s Department of Corrections decided, on a slow summer Friday afternoon, 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 on 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, Monterey Shock, a minimum-security prison in Schuyler County. 675 people work at the prisons.

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 Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association of New York State, says that’s not the full story of what’s going on in the prisons. He says in 1999, the prisons were severely overcrowded and many were double bunked, creating potentially dangerous conditions.  And he 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. He says the newest round of downsizing comes after the Cuomo Administration has closed 11 other prisons and other 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, who says many corrections officers are also volunteer firefighters, or Little League coaches.

 “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 e-mail, 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 who have the prisons slated for closure in their districts are also upset. Senator Kathy Marchione , whose district includes Mount McGregor, the largest prison on the closure list, says is a statement  that the news is “disappointing”, and 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.


Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.