Officials fear fiscal woes could spur deeper prison cuts

Associated Press A guard tower and barbed-wire fencing are shown outside Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, N.Y., in this Feb. 16 file photo.

ALBANY — New York's deepening fiscal crisis is sparking concerns that the state prison system will face a more dramatic downsizing than what initial projections suggested.

Any prison closure in the upstate region would be controversial at a time when communities are beset by the double-digit unemployment statistics that arose following the sudden economic shutdown imposed in March as government officials sought to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The public health crisis has exacerbated the state's fiscal challenges, leaving a state treasury deficit now projected at more than $14.5 billion.

Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said he voted against the legislation giving Gov. Andrew Cuomo the authority to close an undefined number of prisons.

Now he fears the state is preparing to expand the scope of the trimming.

"I think that with the COVID crisis and everything going on, they are probably looking for more than what they initially thought," Jones said Monday.

He challenged the notion that the prison system is ready for a reduction, noting the state still relies on the double-bunking of inmates in some facilities, a practice he wants to see ended. He also argued that closing prisons will lead to higher inmate density in the remaining facilities, and thus create new COVID risks for the effort to curb the spread of the virus.

According to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 17 New York prisons have been closed since 2011, eliminating some 6,500 beds.

On Aug. 1, the total inmate population stood at 37,559 inmates, 48% less than the total at the end of 1999. 

The population decline accelerated dramatically over the past year. On August 1, 2019, the prisons held 46,606 convicted felons.

DOCCS prison spokesman Thomas Mailey told CNHI that no decisions have yet been made on which and how many prisons will face closure.

Jones, a former state corrections officer who now represents a region where state prisons remain a significant employer, said he expects an announcement will be made soon.

Under state law, the governor has to wait at least 90 days to close a facility after apprising legislative leaders of the closure plan.

Until last year, the law required that a full year pass between the decision and the closure, giving impacted personnel and their families more time to adjust to the transition, as corrections officers and other employees at a targeted facility are expected to be allowed to transfer to a remaining facility.

"Giving people just 90 days is just not enough time for people who have to adapt," said Jones, noting the state has already closed three prisons in his district.

He contended the region should not have to deal with more abrupt closures. "We gave at the office," he said.

Also taking issue with the closure effort is state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, who, like Jones, is an ally of the New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association, the union for the officers staffing the facilities.

“There certainly is a lot of concern among public health officials of a second wave’of coronavirus this fall, similar to what happened during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic,” Little said. “Safety in a prison facility is paramount. Closing down facilities would boost density in those that remain open and make distancing of inmates and staff even more challenging.”

The prison system is expecting all staffers at the targeted facilities will have employment opportunities with the state, without any need for layoffs, Mailey said.

"Once a determination is made, DOCCS Human Resources staff will meet with impacted employees to review the process and various options to remain employed by DOCCs or another state agency," Mailey said.

The closure process is being closely watched by prison reform advocates who have long contended New York criminal justice system relies too heavily on incarceration.

"We can't continue to have prisons be an economic driver or the main part of the work force in the North Country or any other part of the state for that matter," said David George, director of the Release Aging People in Prisons Campaign.

George continued there is simple solution to the health concerns about leaving the facilities with a higher density of inmates: release greater numbers of offenders.

Jones suggested that state officials, in choosing facilities to close, consider the impact such moves will have on communities, some of which have been left with festering "eyesores" after attempts to redevelop other properties didn't generate interest, he said.

The assemblyman noted if a facility has to close, Sing Sing, a maximum security, aging facility overlooking the Hudson River in Westchester County, just north of New York City, would be a strong candidate. Jones said the local community would not be jarred by the closure and the property would likely be snapped up by real estate developers given its prime location.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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