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NY is closing 6 prisons Thursday. What will it mean for local economies?

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Tiffany Cusaac-Smith via Poughkeepsie Journal

Correctional facilities in Rochester, Fishkill and Southport are among six New York prisons shuttering Thursday, amid diminishing prison populations and the implementation of key reforms aimed at curbing incarceration.

At the close of business Thursday, Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill and the Rochester Correctional Facility will be two of six that will close, adding to the 18 prisons that the state has already closed since October 2011. The Department of Correction and Community Supervision operates 50 facilities as of March 1. 

People incarcerated at the prison have been moved to other facilities based on their security classification along with their medical and mental health needs, officials said. Others will complete their sentences and be released or granted parole. 

The six maximum-, minimum- and medium-security prisons that will shut down this week, state officials said, had already been under capacity and were “no longer necessary” given declines in the incarcerated population. Still, some community leaders outside the wall of the prisons remain concerned about how closing the prison will affect the local economy.

In March, there were roughly 30,000 people incarcerated at New York prisons, a sharp decline from the high of nearly 73,000 in 1999, DOCCS said in a monthly report. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration has argued that closing prisons are a cost-cutting item and a means toward transforming “these facilities in more creative and productive ways.”

Corrections officials have cited the passage of criminal justice reforms such as the Less is More Act and the HALT Act as a factor contributing to the prisons’ closure. 

The HALT Act limits the use of segregated confinement for incarcerated people to 15 days and adds due process protections, legislators said. 

The Less is More Act curbs the use of incarceration for nonviolent technical parole violations, such as being late for a curfew or consuming alcohol or marijuana. It also bolsters due process for people so that those on parole will no longer be incarcerated while accused of a violation.

Yonah Zeitz, senior advocacy and communications manager at the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, said New York was a leader in incarcerating people for technical parole violations. 

Today, Zeitz said, nearly 1,500 people have been released on provisions of the law that have been implemented. The entire law will take effect in September. 

The recent changes, Zeitz said, show “we are choosing not to spend large resources putting people in cages and, instead, investing in other things that actually keep communities safe.” He said that includes affordable housing and accessible health care. 

Correctional officials expected the closures to save taxpayers a calculated $142 million when they were announced in November. 

  • Ogdensburg Correctional Facility, a medium-security institution in St. Lawrence County.
  • Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, a minimum-security shock institution in Essex County.
  • The Willard Drug Treatment Campus, a medium-security institution in Seneca County.
  • Southport Correctional Facility, a maximum-security institution in Chemung County. 
  • Downstate Correctional Facility, a maximum-security institution in Dutchess County. 
  • Rochester Correctional Facility, a minimum-security work-release institution in Monroe County.

Thursday’s closures come as part of a budget deal struck by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo to give the holder of the state’s top office the authority to close prisons.

Under his tenure, Cuomo closed 18 prisons, including the Buffalo and Fulton correctional facilities. In turn, the elimination of more than 10,000 beds resulted in around $300 million in annual savings, corrections officials said.

But the issue of closing prisons has been fraught, particularly among communities where the facilities are major employers and economic drivers.

Michael Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said in November the move would affect more than 1,000 workers but should not be a surprise given previous prison closures.

“At some point, the state needs to realize that these choices are more than just buildings and tax-saving measures, these are life-altering decisions that upend lives and destroy communities,” he said.

Staff relocation efforts will be reported to the temporary president of the state Senate and the speaker of the Assembly within 60 days after a facilities’ closure, according to the 2021-22 budget. 

Although state officials have said that they don’t expect layoffs, local leaders say the closure will still have an effect on their local economies.

“We continue to have significant concerns regarding the closure of the Downstate Correctional Facility, including the correctional staff who are now forced to commute to other facilities as gas prices are soaring,” Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro said Monday.

In a November letter to the governor, he pushed back on the idea of the prison being underutilized, saying it doesn’t have the static population as other permanent facilities because it’s a receptions center where people await court dates and transfers to other prisons.

Molinaro, a Republican who ran for governor in 2018, argued closing the prison will make it more difficult for families from New York City to visit incarcerated loved ones. 

High among his concerns is what to do with the site of the prison. The Beacon Correctional Facility, also in Dutchess, closed in 2013 and has not been redeveloped.

In 2019, the Empire State Development said it would redevelop the site when it selected a proposal to create a campus focus on food, farming, sports, and recreation. Yet, Molinaro said Monday, there “has been no activity at the site” and it remains an eyesore.

Hochul’s State of the State book outlined the creation of a commission in which leaders from state agencies and others will develop an action plan that includes land use, redevelopment, and local workforce trends. 

In considering whether to close a prison, DOCCS said it carefully reviews the operations in its 50 corrections facilities, including physical infrastructure, criminal justice reforms, program offerings, and the impact on the staff.

Zeitz, of the Katal Center, said the closures also show that New York is moving toward a system “rooted in helping people have successful reentry so they don’t have to go back to prison.” 

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