WATERTOWN — The head of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision defended the decision to close three upstate New York prisons at the end of March to save $89 million as part of a squabble with representatives Wednesday during a hearing about the state’s proposed 2021-22 budget.
North country representatives remain opposed to the closures.
The number of state prisons will be reduced to 50 facilities this spring with the imminent closing of Watertown Correctional Facility, Gowanda Correctional Facility in Erie County and the Clinton Annex at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora by March 31. Clinton Correctional will not be closing. Gov. Andrew Cuomo handed down the decision late last year.
The number of incarcerated New Yorkers has decreased by more than 22,000 people since Cuomo took office in 2011 — the lowest total since 1984, and a 54% decline since the all-time high of 72,773 in 1999.
The significant population decline caused the state to close 18 correctional facilities without laying off employees since 2011, saving $292 million.
“Based on the continued decline of the incarcerated population, we anticipate additional facility closures in the upcoming two fiscal years,” DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci said Wednesday during his opening testimony.
Lawmakers questioned 33 witnesses as part of a bicameral hearing on public protection in Cuomo’s executive budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2021-22 — the state Legislature’s ninth of 13 this month.
The closures of Watertown, Gowanda and Clinton Annex will result in an annual savings of about $89 million and a reduction of about 2,750 beds, according to DOCCS.
“We’re in an enormous situation with the budget,” Annucci said. “The budget director is very hard-pressed to find additional funds for anything without taking funding from something else.”
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.
DOCCS administrators will personally meet with all affected staff to explain their rights and options, Annucci said. The department identifies vacant positions throughout the system.
Corrections officers will be transferred to work in other state facilities. Most will commute or move to work at facilities in Cape Vincent or Gouverneur, but newer officers will be relocated downstate.
Annucci’s top priority is overseeing the facilities’ smooth closure by the end of next month, he said.
“My immediate priority is to make sure staff at those three facilities have opportunity for employment elsewhere at other facilities,” he added.
Employees and inmates will start to be transferred to their new locations within the next two weeks.
Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, was quick to criticize Annucci for citing the closures as his top priority.
“I disagree,” the assemblyman said. “I think your first responsibility is to recreate a plan for prison closure. Your next is to take care of employees under your department and the following is to take care of the inmates.”
Walczyk asked Annucci why the department announced the prison closures, which was difficult news for many families, four days before Christmas.
“If you’re asking why that particular timing, it was not an easy decision to make,” Annucci replied. “Had COVID never happened, we probably would have announced June 1 — July 1 at the latest. COVID happened and that complicated everything. We’re balancing, obviously, the decrease in the population, which is happening at a very rapid pace.”
The state’s incarcerated population is under 33,000, and has reduced by more than 11,000 people since Jan. 1 of last year, including 3,555 non-violent, non-sex offenders and 791 low-level parole violators from local custody released early because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, R-Bath, criticized DOCCS for the quick, 90-day prison closures.
“It really is a lack of respect for the families in these communities,” Palmesano said of the affected corrections officers and staff. “It’s adding insult to injury and no time for planning or preparation ... It’s not enough time for a family to plan. It’s just not appropriate, especially in this era of COVID.”
Palmesano urged the acting commissioner to delay the closures for one year.
“I do not underestimate the impact on the staff or surrounding communities,” Annucci said. “It’s the toughest decision to do,”
The acting commissioner assured Palmesano that DOCCS and other state officials study many factors before closing a facility.
“We look at everything,” he said. “We look at how things are working at the facility, we look at the infrastructure. We look at the proximity to other facilities where we can move staff. We look at the actual infrastructure of the facility itself.”
Palmesano argued closing the facilities would crowd more inmates in fewer settings and poses a health risk as the pandemic continues.
Annucci said there’s no correlation between closing facilities and the increased incidents of violence and assaults on corrections officers.
Dozens of local residents recently rallied in Watertown’s Public Square to protest the upcoming closure.
Sen. Patricia Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, has been opposed to the shuttering of Watertown Correctional Facility since the closure was announced. The senator on Thursday continued her criticism of the timing of the closure — four days before Christmas.
“It is truly heartbreaking that in the middle of a global pandemic, roughly 400 hardworking people and their family members are having the rug pulled out from underneath them,” she said in a statement Thursday. “I have been vocal in my opposition to this closure, which not only will affect hardworking Watertown Correctional employees, but also will have far-reaching effects on the north country and its already fragile economy.”
Ritchie called on DOCCS to end the space-saving practice of double bunking, which puts two or more inmates together in a cell designed for a single occupant, rather than reduce the number of available cells by closing prisons.
“Now is not the right time to close this facility and I continue to encourage the governor to rethink this poor decision,” she said.
The practice of double-bunking has ceased at most state facilities, except a few downstate, Annucci said during Wednesday’s hearing.
The department decommissioned more than 3,000 top bunks, greatly reducing density within dorm settings, to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the acting commissioner said.
Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, has also made his opposition to the planned closures clear since they were announced last year.
Jones, whose district includes the Clinton Correctional Facility and its annex, said he believes the closures will disproportionately affect the north country economy. At a time of severe economic instability, Jones said the results could seriously hamper recovery in the region.
“Our state’s correction officers and civilian workers have worked tirelessly on the frontlines of this pandemic, risking their health and the health of their families for their essential work,” he said in a statement Thursday. “As a former correction officer myself, I know the devastating impact that these closures have on our families and communities. At a time when north country residents are facing unprecedented COVID-related changes, the state shouldn’t be making decisions that hamstring our region’s recovery.”
Jones understands cuts are necessary as statewide inmate populations have decreased, but cautioned that closing prisons and transferring inmates to other facilities will lead to more crowded, dangerous conditions in the prisons that receive the transfers.
Cuomo should not have the sole power to close prisons, Jones said, who also sponsors a bill in the Assembly to require the state Legislature’s approval to close a correctional facility.
“I’ll keep working to ensure any decisions regarding correctional facilities are made in a fair, transparent manner and require local input to help the hardworking men and women employed in these facilities,” Jones said.