Inmate populations have been dropping the last few years, in part because of reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws last year. Those laws imposed long prison sentences even on low-level, non-violent offenders.
As Brian Mann reports, the new governor says using prisons as an economic development tool is unaffordable and morally wrong.
(NOTE: At the bottom of this story, you'll find a list of state correctional facilities in the North Country. There is also one additional Federal prison located in Ray Brook.)
Andrew Cuomo raised the issue of corrections and incarceration in the context of the state’s juvenile justice program.
"We have young people who are incarcerated in these state programs who are receiving help," Cuomo said, " that has already been proven to be ineffective."
But he then pivoted to talk about New York’s broader prison network, describing it as too costly and unfair.
"An incarceration program is not an employment program," Cuomo insisted. "If people need jobs, let's get people jobs. Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs. Don't put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs. That's not what this state is all about. And that has to end this session."
But Bob Gangi, a prison reform advocate based in New York City, points out that prisons have been used deliberately as a way to shore up sagging upstate economies.
There are eighteen state prisons here in the North Country alone, stretching from Mt. McGregor in Saratoga County to the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility.
"It's somewhat ironic that he says that's not what this state is all about," he said.
"Unfortunately, with regard to prison policy, that's what the state has been about for the last thirty years. Virtually every new prison that has been opened has been in an upstate white rural community, most of which have been represented by Republican state senators."
Gangi wants half a dozen additional prisons closed – including some here in the North Country. He says the new governor sounds like he’s on the right track.
"One of the problems with using incarceration as a jobs program is the fundamental immorality of it. As he said, it's locking up people to provide other people jobs. You should only be locking up people if there is a reason on the basis of public safety or justice."
But the governor’s message alarmed many leaders in the North Country.
State Senator Betty Little praised yesterday’s state-of-the state speech – she supports the idea of shrinking state government.
But Little says if prisons have to go, they should be cut somewhere else.
"I certainly don't believe that we need to create inmates to fill prisons," Little said. "But I do believe that when we decide to downsize or reduce the number of facilities, we need to look at the economic impact. The North Country doesn't have a lot of other options. So it woudl be my hope that they would look in other parts of the state where they do have facilities. They're all over the state. They're certainly more expensive to operate. The land is more valuable. And there are more opportunities for private sector jobs."
That message was echoed by Moriah town supervisor Tom Scozzafava. Last year, he fought successfully to save the Moriah Shock prison in his town. Scozzafava says he’s already spoken with the new governor about the importance of keeping the facility open.
"The bottom line here is that these prisons are vital to the economy here," Scozzafava said. "And that's why they're here. And some of these facilities were built here during Governor Cuomo's — his dad's — administration. Would we like to be able to provide our constituents with other forms of employment? Absolutely. But you know what, the bottom line is, it's not happening. I've been in office almost 25 years and guess what? It's almost impossible to bring light industry or manufacturing into the Adirondack Park."
In recent years, the state has downsized prisons across the North Country, closing Camp Gabriels near Ssaranac Lake and beginning the process of shuttering Lyon Mountain in Clinton County.
Also on last year’s hit-list for closure was a prison in Ogdensburg. State Senator Patty Ritchie says she’s not worried that one of Ogdensburg’s two prisons will be targeted again.
"That's definitely one part that I'm paying specific attention to," Ritchie said. "But I don't necessarily think that he was referring to prisons in my district."
But eform advocate Bob Gangi says the pressure to close more prisons will only build Albany struggles with a $10 billion dollar budget gap.
"We see the political viability of the effort to close prisons, for better or worse, being significantly increased because of the fiscal crisis," Gangi said.
This isn’t the first time Governor Cuomo has warned about possible downsizing for state workers in the North Country. After a visit last November to the Sunmount Developmental Disabilities campus in Tupper Lake, he told WWNY TV, "If I was a state worker…I would be afraid of what is coming ahead.”
The state prison guard’s union, NYSCOPBA, has been campaigning against more closures. But a spokeswoman for the group says they have no comment on the governor’s speech. For North Country Public Radio.
NY STATE PRISONS IN NORTH COUNTRY:
Adirondack Correctional Facility
Cape Vincent Correctional Facility
Chateaugay Correctional Facility
Hale Creek ASACTC
Lyon Mountain (closing)