As Karen Dewitt reports, the hearing offered critics of the plan their first chance to push back against further downsizing.
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Governor Cuomo proposed shrinking the prison system in his budget plan by three thousand five hundred beds.
In his State of the State speech in January, the governor received the most applause when he said it didn’t make sense to keep unused prisons open just to preserve jobs for guards and administrators.
“Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs,” Cuomo bellowed, to applause.
Over the years, many upstate rural communities have come to depend on the prisons to drive their local economies, providing good paying jobs and supporting spin off businesses, and Cuomo made some concessions to that in this budget. He proposed that if a community finds it’s prison is to be closed, they will receive up to $10 million dollars in economic development aid.
One thing that Cuomo did not do was to name specific prisons slated for shuttering. Instead, he will assemble a panel of lawmakers and representatives from the criminal justice industry to decide which prisons should close.
Because no one prison is on the chopping block, criticism has been muted so far. Lawmakers with prisons in their districts who might be impacted seemed wary as they questioned the state’s prisons commissioner Brian Fischer.
Senator Betty Little has 11 prisons in her wide ranging North Country district. She asked the Commissioner for details of any preliminary plans, and noted that the task force is not scheduled to recommend specific prison closures until after the budget is finished, on May 1st. She says she wants to avoid a scenario where “it’s already a done deal and over with and the communities have no recourse.”
The commissioner made no commitments.
The President of the prison guards union, Donn Rowe also testified.
He contends it would be dangerous to further shrink the system by 3500 beds. Rowe says prison population is more violent than it was in the past, and he says maximum security prisons are currently at 122% of capacity. He predicts the cut backs would create more double bunking of inmates, which is the practice of housing two inmates in cells built for just one prisoner.
Rowe was asked by Senator John Bonacic, whose district contains seven state prisons, whether the consolidations would pose a risk to prisoners and their guards.
“Can you say that unequivocally?” Bonacic asked..
“Absolutely,” Rowe answered.
Rowe says he’d rather see savings come from cutting duplicative administrators. He says some prisons in close proximity have separate superintendents and other administrators, as well as an entire agency building in Albany devoted to prison administration. He got some chuckles from lawmakers and those in the audience when he answered a question from Senator Mike Nozzolio, who also has some prisons in his district, whether so many superintendents are needed.
“My opinion, is a quote from one of my members,” said Rowe. “‘At 4 o’clock and on weekends and holidays, correctional facilities run similar, if not better than when the administrators are there’”.
Prison population peaked at round 71,000 in 1999, now at around 57,000. There were 22,000 guards in the late 1990’s, there are around 2000 fewer guards now at the prisons, says Rowe.
Cuomo issued an executive order setting up the prison closing panel Wednesday, but did not name any task force members.