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Last year, then state Sen. Darrel Aubertine spoke at a rally to save Ogdensburg Correctional (Photo: NYS Senate)
Last year, then state Sen. Darrel Aubertine spoke at a rally to save Ogdensburg Correctional (Photo: NYS Senate)

Ogdensburg waits to find out if state prisons will be spared

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Governor Andrew Cuomo is preparing a final list of state correctional facilities that will close this year as part of his austerity spending plan.

That means prison towns here in the North Country are waiting on pins and needles, hoping their facilities aren't on the list.

Once the governor announces his decision, prisons could close within thirty days.

Brian Mann visited Ogdensburg. He found that people there are worried, but hopeful.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Correction:  Andrew Farrand's last name was misspelled.

Last year Chad Stickney’s dining room was transformed into a war room as local prison guards and political leaders rallied to save Ogdensburg’s two state prisons.

Ogdensburg Correctional Facility, where Stickney works, had been targeted for closure by then Governor David Paterson. 

They won that fight and the prison was saved.

But sitting at that same table, Stickney and fellow corrections officer Andrew Farrand say people here are nervous.

Governor Cuomo is preparing to close as many as half a dozen additional prisons statewide and no one knows where the axe will fall.

"For Ogdensburg to lose either prison, Riverview or Ogdensburg Correctional, would be economically devastating," said Stickney, a guard and a union official with NYSCOPBA. 

"Just out of Ogdensburg Correctional Facility, you're going to take 300 employees out of this area.  You're going to take a $22.2 million payroll out of this area annually."

Andrew Ferrin sits forward and shakes his head.  This area is already depressed, he says.  Losing hundreds of high paying jobs could wreck Ogdensburg.

"One in every five children in this county are living in poverty. It's just going to get even worse after that.  I can't even imagine what's going to happen.  It's going to be terrible."

Walk down town in Ogdensburg and you see evidence of economic stress everywhere.  Shops are closed.  Parking spaces are empty.

This small city lost nearly ten percent of its population over the last decade.  Katie Morgan runs the Busy Corner Café.  She says even without a prison closure, things here are hard.

"Taking money away from it would make it a lot worse," Morgan said.  "There wouldn’t be people going out and buying food and tipping the waitress that’s going somewhere else, Wal-Mart or whatever."

Ogdensburg is one of a dozen North Country towns – from Dannemora to Moriah to Malone that have hitched a big part of their economic future to state prisons.

But over the last ten years, inmate populations have plummeted, thanks to declining crime rates and changes to the Rockefeller drug laws.

As a consequence, Governor Cuomo made closing prisons a centerpiece of his effort to close a $10 billion dollar hole in the state budget without raising taxes.

Here he is speaking during his state of the state address earlier this year.

"An incarceration program is not an employment program," he declared.  "If people need jobs, let’s get people jobs.  Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs."

It’s still not clear how many prisons will close, or which facilities will be affected. 

But last week, the legislature gave Cuomo the authority to eliminate 3700 prison beds statewide.  State Senator Betty Little said she hoped most of those cuts would land outside the North Country.

"I'm hopeful that we look in other areas of the state.  We've had three closures, we've had Camp Gabriels, Lyon Mountain, and a 200 bed annex at Washington Correctional.  And so far, all of those places are still empty." 

Prison guards in Ogdensburg were feeling relatively optimistic that their facility wouldn’t be on this year’s closure list.

Then a story aired last week on WWNY TV suggesting that the Ogdensburg Correctional Facility needs millions of dollars in upgrades and repairs.

"We looked through state records to find out which prisons need the most work over the next four years," reported WWNY TV's Jude Seymour.

"The answer in the North Country:  Ogdensburg Correctional.  Governor Paterson tried closing it last year and it still needs nearly $12 milllion in work."   

Local officials and prison guards dispute that claim.  They say state corrections officials inflated a list of repairs and added a costly new heating system that was unnecessary. 

"So last year the commissioner was grasping at straws for reasons to close us," said corrections officer Andrew Farrand. "We've already proved that that boiler system is not needed."

Prison guards here point to statements of support Ogdensburg Correctional that Governor Cuomo made while on a campaign swing through the North Country. 

"I'm trusting that our governor will keep his word last year that he stated to us," Stickney said.  "If he goes by that, I'm very confident that Ogdensburg Correctional will stay open."

But the simple fact is roughly one in five state prisons are located here in the North Country. 

If the Governor does close as many as six facilities, it’s likely that at least one community in this region will feel part of the blow. 

Cuomo is expected to release his final list within thirty days.

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