Days before prison closures, lawmakers renew plea for reversal

The Watertown Correctional Facility, Monday in Watertown. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

Lawmakers urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to follow state Correction Law and reverse, or at least delay, the closure of three upstate facilities this week as representatives negotiate policy in the budget affecting incarcerated New Yorkers and corrections staff.

Watertown Correctional Facility, Gowanda Correctional Facility in Erie County and the Clinton Annex at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora will close for good Wednesday, state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said in a statement. Clinton Correctional will remain open.

After the facilities close, all equipment, including vehicles, desks and chairs will be transferred to other state correctional facilities or surplused by DOCCS. Utilities will be shut off after the buildings are emptied, the water pipes are drained and the buildings will be closed and boarded up in an effort to protect the state assets for sale and reuse, according to the department.

“Upon closure, DOCCS will begin the decommission process in order to protect the state assets for potential reuse,” according to a statement Saturday from DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey. “The Department will work with the Office of General Services and the Empire State Development Corporation in an effort to identify a reuse for the [facilities].”

The state estimates the closures will save $89 million and comes on the heels of significant population decline in state prisons.

The number of incarcerated New Yorkers is about 31,407 as of Friday, down from about 31,800 on March 15. The figure reflects a decrease of more than 22,000 people since Cuomo took office in 2011 — the lowest total since 1984 and a 57% decline since the all-time high of 72,773 in 1999.

The state has reduced its incarcerated population by about 12,100 New Yorkers since Jan. 1, 2020, according to DOCCS.

Lawmakers representing communities where the prisons are located have largely pushed back against the quick closures, which were announced four days before Christmas.

Cuomo included language in his 2021-22 executive budget proposal to “allow the state to act expeditiously to right-size and eliminate excess capacity with 90-day notice,” for two years.

Cuomo has included language in four past state budgets since taking office in 2011 waiving the 12-month requirement and permitting the closure of facilities with 60- or 90-day notice.

Beacon, a minimum-security female prison in Dutchess County, and Bayview, a medium-security female facility in Manhattan, each closed in 2013 with 60 days’ notice.

Assemblyman Joseph Giglio, R-Gowanda, and a ranking member of the Correction Committee, pointed to a section former Republican Gov. George Pataki signed into state Correction Law Section 79-a in 2005 that requires officials announce a prison closure at least 12 months in advance.

“We believe that law should not have been circumvented almost 10 years in a row,” Giglio said. “This budget, it’s our feeling, it was wholly inappropriate. There’s no reason to circumvent the 2005 law in the budget process. There’s no crisis here.

“The governor, in his submission, has the ability to close any facility, regardless of how many facilities, without any other insider input.”

Giglio and Assemblymen Phil Palmesano, R-Corning; and Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, both members of the Correction Committee, sent Gov. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, a letter and white paper to examine a prison closure’s long-term effects. Lawmakers compiled legal, public safety and economic data over the last several weeks to make a final plea as lawmakers negotiate the details of the 2021-22 budget, which deadlines Thursday.

“At no point has this administration or the Department ‘circumvented’ the law,” Mailey said. “All actions taken on closures were performed in accordance with the law - a point that members of the Assembly should be abundantly clear on​ since they voted on it. Since taking office, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been at the forefront of some of the nation’s most progressive criminal justice reforms by spearheading a series of smart and fair policies that have closed prisons and decreased incarceration rates, brought accountability and transparency to our criminal justice system, protected the rights of victims and upheld due process, all while ensuring New York residents remain safe and secure.”

The state Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association agreed a three-month window is insufficient.

“The 90-day notice isn’t adequate notification for employees who are impacted by the closures,” according to a statement Saturday from union spokesman James Miller. “Officers, who might have to relocate their families, depending on where they are transferred to, are severely impacted by the 90-day notice.”

The state is expected to close an undetermined number of additional prison facilities over the next two years. Various state officials would not say how many or where when pressed Friday and Saturday.

Republicans requested the two-year window be removed from the budget proposal and for state officials to adhere to the 2005 law. The law mandates all affected employees, labor organizations and local governments be notified of the closure of a correctional facility, annex or special housing unit at least one year in advance by certified mail.

“This is the first time he’s asked for two years instead of one year in the budget, which I find very concerning,” Giglio said. “...We believe there should be the 12-month notification requirement so these prisons can be closed in a very orderly fashion. You’re dealing with people’s lives, communities and safety and you don’t do it in a haphazard fashion without our input and without following the original law.”

Empire State Development Corporation implemented the a $32 million Economic Transformation Program in the 2014-15 budget to promote economic development initiatives in communities affected by the 2014 closure of four facilities, according to the assemblymembers’ report, distributing a portion of appropriated funds to localities.

“In the case of Butler correctional facility, only $2.5 million of the $8 million appropriated for economic development in the surrounding area has been used,” according to the report. About $4 million was appropriated in Chateaugay with $3 million used in Monterey Shock. No appropriated funds to Mount McGregor have been spent, according to the report.

Giglio argued closing facilities too quickly impacts the safety and security of inmates and corrections staff, which include unionized officers and civilian employees.

Assaults on staff have increased from 760 in 2016 to 1051 in 2020, according to the state Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association. The inmate population in 2016 was 52,262, and dipped to 34,669 in 2020.

“During that time period two prisons where closed along with the three announced at the end of 2020,” Miller said.

The number of assault on DOCCS staff and related incidents remained flat in 2019 and 2020, according to the department.

DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci said during a bicameral legislative budget hearing Feb. 10 closing facilities has no correlation with the increased incidents of violence and assaults on corrections officers.

“There should be a plan,” Giglio said. “The numbers have come down, but at some point, there’s a right sizing and you don’t just keep closing facilities down. ...We can right-size this a lot better under the one-year rule and get this right. Then maybe we can rejuvenate some of these places and make them useful in the community they’re in.”

Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa, D-Manhattan, and member of the Correction Committee, represents constituents and communities with a majority of Black and Latino New Yorkers who have been targeted by the criminal justice system.

“When I walk into prisons, the first thing that jumps out at me is the fact the people sitting behind bars look like me,” De La Rosa said Saturday. “They look like my constituents. When I hear about the economics [of prison closures], it just recertifies in my mind that we are making economic engines out of mass incarceration for people of color, for New York and throughout the nation.”

The assemblywoman argued people are quick to make arguments about the financial harms of closing prisons without considering investing into programs or opportunities for incarcerated people to change while in prison and have restorative justice.

The prison system should not be a job generator, nor should facilities be kept open for the sake of employment opportunities, De La Rosa added.

“Prisons continue to operate in New York state — if people want to be employed by the corrections department, they should ask for transfers,” she said. “There’s plenty of facilities that are open still.”

The department offered each employee the opportunity to transfer or be reassigned to an available, funded, vacant position at another correctional facility or state agency.

“DOCCS is working closely with the various bargaining units to provide staff opportunities for priority placement via voluntary transfers and will receive priority in terms of employment at other facilities or other state agencies as a result of the formal Civil Service process that is followed with the closure of a correctional facility,” Mailey said.

The Watertown facility is an all-male, adult prison and consists of 90 buildings with 51 inside the compound and 39 outside the compound, according to a 2016 National PREA Resource Center audit. The Dry Hill prison employs roughly 400 people total, 212 of whom are unionized, or members of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association.

Most staff will commute or move to work at facilities in Cape Vincent or Gouverneur, but newer officers will be relocated downstate.

Gowanda and Watertown are all-male, medium-security facilities. The Clinton Annex is all-male and maximum security.

The three facilities had about 700 total incarcerated individuals at the time of the closure announcement.

“As of March 26, the three facilities have no incarcerated individuals inside,” Mailey said. “They have been transferred to other, same security level, correctional facilities in the state. ...In some cases, medium-security level incarcerated individuals who were housed in Clinton Annex, a maximum B level facility, were transferred to medium-security level facilities.”

This week’s closures will bring the total number of New York prisons to 50. Twenty-three facilities have closed since 2009, according to DOCCS data.

“Closures were in the budget approved in April 2020 and there was no quick turnaround as they were delayed because of the pandemic,” state Budget Division spokesman Freeman Klopott said in a statement. “Budget negotiations are ongoing, however, the state’s prison population has declined 52% since 1999 to 34,500, making it possible for the state to close 18 prisons since 2011 to generate almost $300 million in savings. It just makes sense to continue to have the flexibility to assess prison populations and find savings for taxpayers.”

Klopott would not say the reason the budget includes a waiver for a 90-day notice or why the waiver is proposed for two years for the first time. The waiver was for one year when it was included in the 2011-12, 2013-14, 2019-20 and 2020-21 Fiscal Year budgets.

“The budget allowed for the department to close facilities without specifying a number,” Mailey said of the 2019-20 spending plan.

Nine facilities closed in 2011, two in 2013 and four more in 2014. Closures resumed with two facilities in 2019, including Livingston Correctional Facility in Livingston, according to DOCCS data.

The closures removed 8,051 beds from the state prison system impacting 3,497 employees.

DOCCS and other state officials study many factors before closing a facility, Annucci said in February, including infrastructure and proximity to other facilities to move staff.

DOCCS asked for a Freedom of Information Law request Saturday to compile and release detailed estimated repair costs.

“There are minimal maintenance costs associated with the closures and the decommissioning of the facilities,” Mailey said, but did not answer inquiries for specific annual upkeep costs. “The Clinton Annex will be maintained in a state of ready.”

Giglio criticized Cuomo and his administration for not releasing what the associated maintenance costs.

“Once a facility is moth-balled, what happens to that property?” Giglio asked. “The state of New York still owns it and there’s an expense associated with it. Just less inmates, and we’re going to remove the state employees. There’s no talk about what happens next. We still own them.”

Giglio urged for the state to return to following Pataki’s right-sizing policy he said allowed nonviolent offenders to participate in rehabilitative programs and be released early.

“It works if they let it work,” he said. “But when you do it haphazardly like they’re doing it, all you can do is achieve some not legitimate numbers and not the savings they claim.”

De La Rosa, who has visited prisons across the state, supports the governor’s budgetary waivers to allow for faster prison closures.

“I don’t know what the justification is,” she said of keeping prisons open for a full 12 months. “If we’re seeing a significant decrease in the population and [staff] in those prisons can be easily distributed in the system, why keep an entire facility open? If a prison isn’t being used at capacity, so it is a budget issue. It is a cost savings.

“I would support, in the budget, the closure of these prisons. I think as a committee we can still have robust conversation and those legislatures can register concerns for support as we would during any other time during legislative session.”

The governor ultimately hands down the decision to close a state prison facility. The Legislature is not required to vote to authorize a closure.

Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, sponsors a bill in the Assembly to require the state Legislature’s approval to close a correctional facility.

Jones’s district includes the Clinton Correctional Facility and its annex.

Representatives with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office referred questions to the state Budget Division, and did not answer inquiries about why the governor has repeatedly waived the Correction Law mandate, the benefits of a faster prison closure or the number of facilities, including which, they are considering closing within the two-year waiver in the upcoming budget proposal.

Representatives for the Assembly Majority conference did not return multiple requests for comment.

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