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Tower at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora (Source:  Wikipedia)
Tower at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora (Source: Wikipedia)

Does the North Country's prison industry have a future?

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Tomorrow, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will unveil a plan to cut New York's budget deficit, which now stands at more than $11 billion. Cuomo's spending plan could hit nearly every part of the North Country's economy, from schools to hospitals. He's also considering massive layoffs, with as many as 10,000 jobs on the line statewide.

One state agency that could face the deepest cuts is the Department of Correctional Services. According to the New York Times, between six and ten prisons could be slated for closure. This morning, Brian Mann looks back at the changing debate over prisons and their role as an economic engine here in the North Country.

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Guards and their families rallied unsuccessfully to save Lyon Mountain's prison in 2010

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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When New York state announced last year that it wanted to close the Lyon Mountain prison, in Clinton County, locals like Karen Linney were devastated.

"There’s no jobs anywhere!  So we need to fight to keep this prison open or there’s nothing," she said.

Lyon Mountain used to be a mining town.  But as factories and mines in this region closed in the 1960s and 70s, the state replaced them one by one with prisons.  

"The state understood that the economy in the North Country was hurting.  We needed help," said state Senator Betty Little, who spoke at a town meeting last year at the Lyons Mountain American Legion hall. 

Little’s sprawling rural district has thirteen state prisons and she says they should all stay right where they are.

"We built an economy around these facilities and there’s absolutely nothing, nothing to replace those jobs," she argued.

Strange as it seems to outsiders, people in the North Country have long thought of prisons as an industry.  Jobs behind bars are a kind of trade passed on from generation to generation. 

State labor economist Alan Beideck points out that workers on the state payroll generally enjoy far greater prosperity than their private sector neighbors.

"Not only the wages, but the benefits.  That has a big impact," he noted.

But the livelihood of prisons guards and others corrections workers is being squeezed hard by two big changes. 

Crime rates in New York state plummeted over the last decade and the number of inmates dropped 20 percent. 

Because the state eased mandatory drug sentences last year, the prison population is expected to shrink even more.  

The other big change is the state’s deepening budget crisis.  In his state of the state address earlier this month, Governor Cuomo said using prisons to prop up rural economies is no longer affordable.

"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.  That's not what this state is all about.  And that has to end this session.

Cuomo’s announcement drew praise from prison reform advocates like Bob Gangi, with the Correctional Association of New York.

"It’s somewhat ironic that he says that’s not what this state is all about.  Because that’s what the state has been about for about the last 30 years," Gangi said.

Gangi says the old policy was too expensive.  Even after years of cutbacks, the Department of Correctional Services still employs nearly 19,000 prison guards statewide. 

But Gangi argued that the system also created an economic incentive to lock up people who should have been in drug rehab or mental health counseling.

"One of the problems of using incarceration as a jobs program is the fundamental immorality of it.  As [Governor Cuomo] said, you’re locking up people in order to provide other people jobs."

Gangi wants as many as ten prisons to be closed immediately statewide.  He also wants more prisons to be located downstate, so that inmates can do their time near their families. 

But rural leaders in the North Country say their towns provide a needed service, housing and caring for the state’s criminals.

"The bottom line here is that these prisons are vital to the economy here, and that's why they're here," said Tom Scozzafava, supervisor in the town of Moriah, home to one of New York’s prison camps. 

"Would we like to be able provide our constituents with other forms of employment? Absolutely!  But you know what?  The bottom line is that it's not happening."

Locals are also bitter about the state’s handling of prisons that have already closed.  They accuse correctional facilities have been shuttered hastily, with no plan for redevelopment.  

Brian McDonnell has been working to help sell Camp Gabriels, a prison mothballed in 2009 that sits smack in the middle of his community of Brighton.  He says the prison was abandoned and left in terrible shape. 

"There was some black mold in a lot of, in several of the metal buildings," he noted.  "The state didn’t do us any favors by just closing everything up."

Any new prison cuts announced Tuesday are sure to spark a major political fight in the state legislature. 

Avoiding closures may be impossible, given the budget crisis, but state Senator Betty Little says she hopes corrections facilities in these rural towns will be spared.

"I certainly don’t believe that we need to create inmates to fill prisons," Little acknowledged.

"But I do believe that when we decide to downsize we need to look at the economic impact.  It would be my hope that they would look in other parts of the state."

But prison guards like Chad Stickney are worried.  He lives in Ogdensburg New York where there are actually two state prisons – one of them targeted for closure last year.

"We need to unite as every jail above Albany," Stickney said at the gathering in Lyon Mountain.  "Because that’s where all these jails closures are coming from.  We need to rally as a whole.

But the prison in Lyon Mountain was emptied of inmates last month.  It officially closes its doors today, costing the community more than ninety jobs.

 

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