ALBANY — Citing a drop in New York's crime rate, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signaled Friday that his administration plans to close three state prisons by September in a move expected to save the state at least $35 million annually.
The announcement of the closures came as a surprise, because two weeks ago Corrections Commissioner Anthony Annucci offered no hint of such a move during lengthy testimony before lawmakers regarding his agency and the 54 prisons that it oversees.
The plan came without details as to which prisons would be closed. That decision will be left up the agency run by Annucci, a Cuomo appointee, according to the Cuomo administration.
Cuomo's office provided no details on projected job losses, with the announcement pointing out that the exact prisons that would be closed have yet to be designated.
The mention of the closure plan was tucked into a budget amendment notice released Friday just prior to Cuomo's office providing more details in a press statement.. The amendments to Cuomo's $175 billion spending plan come amid the governor's recent revelations that tax receipts are running $2.3 billion behind the administration's projections.
Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, said he will strongly urge the Cuomo administration to refrain from closing any of the five remaining prisons in his district. He noted the district has endured the shutdowns of three correctional facilities over the past decade — Camp Gabriels, Lyon Mountain and Chateaugay.
"We just can't take any more hits from prison closures in my district or anywhere in the North Country," Jones said after learning of the plan. He is the only lawmaker who previously had been employed as a state corrections officer.
Also registering strong concerns was Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury.
“There’s scant detail in the 30-day executive budget amendments but plenty to be concerned about with an indication of the closure of up to three correctional facilities,” Little said. She said shutting down any prisons could lead to overcrowding in the facilities that remain open.
“Maintaining safety in these facilities for the men and women who work there and for the inmates is critical," the senator said. "It's a tough environment to say the least. As I understand, we still see overcrowding in some places, including in the large dormitories. Closing prisons will have a ripple effect throughout the system."
Whether more cuts to state programs are in the offing as Cuomo budget officials seek to tighten the belt on state spending is unknown.
Cuomo's budget amendment requests approval from the Legislature to allow him to proceed with the closure plan. The request suggests the authorization would empower him to mothball up to three facilities "as he determines to be necessary for the cost-effective and efficient operation" of the system.
In the press release, the governor cast the closure plan as positive news for the state and gave his administration praise for reducing reliance on incarceration. "These new closures are another step toward reversing the era of mass incarceration and recognizing that there are more effective alternatives to lengthy imprisonment," Cuomo declared.
New York's prison population has shed nearly 10,000 inmates — a reduction of nearly 17 percent — since 2011 and is down by about 25,000 prisoners from 20 years ago, according to Cuomo's office.
The current population is 46,973 inmates. The closure plan seeks to eliminate a total of 1,200 beds.
Many upstate lawmakers have pointed to the importance of prison employment to the region's economy.
But Cuomo noted that when he took office in 2011, "I said prisons are not a jobs program." He added: "Since then, I am proud to have closed more prisons than any governor in history and at the same time proved that New York can remain the safest large state in the nation. But we must do more."
Both Jones and Michael Powers, the president of the New York State Correctional Officers Police Benevolent Association, warned that closures are bound to lead to inmate overcrowding and fuel tensions behind bars.
"This will unquestionably make our prisons more dangerous," Powers said in a statement. "It means consolidating the incarcerated into other prisons, making them overpopulated and increasing the risk of violent behavior. Violence at New York's correctional facilities is already at an historic high."
The Cuomo administration's announcement attempted to minimize the impact to prison employment levels.
"In prior facility closures, more than 96 percent of staff have chosen to continue state service, retire, or pursue other opportunities," Cuomo's office said in the statement. The exact number of beds that would be eliminated is "ultimately dependent on the exact facilities" targeted for closure, it said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.