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Bayview in Manhattan is one of two correctional facilities slated to be closed in the new budget plan. Photo: Google Street View
Bayview in Manhattan is one of two correctional facilities slated to be closed in the new budget plan. Photo: Google Street View

Governor continues downsizing of state prison system

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Governor Andrew Cuomo says New York's state prison system needs to shrink again. In his speech Tuesday, Cuomo unveiled plans to eliminate two downstate correctional facilities.

The move spares prisons and prison jobs here in the North Country, at least for the time being.

But the move comes as part of a continuing shift in the state's criminal justice policy that has meant new uncertainty for prison workers.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Beginning in 1973, New York state began locking up a lot more people even for low-level crimes. The new policy meant building dozens of new prisons, many of them here in the North Country.

Governor Mario Cuomo, speaking in 1991 Photo: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mario_Cuomo_speaking_at_a_rally,_June_20,_1991.JPEG">Wikipedia</a>
Governor Mario Cuomo, speaking in 1991 Photo: Wikipedia
A big part of that prison construction boom happened under then-Governor Mario Cuomo in the '80s and early '90s.

"During the Cuomo years, the state opened more prisons than had been opened in the entire history of the state going back to the early 1800s when the first prison was built and opened," says New York City-based criminal justice and prison policy activist Bob Gangi.

But that was the last Governor Cuomo.

Inmate populations have been declining in New York state for more than a decade, down 17 percent since 2002 thanks to lower crime rates and changes to state sentencing guidelines.

Under Governor Andrew Cuomo, the state of New York has continued a dramatic trend of closing state prisons – with nine facilities mothballed since 2008.

In his budget address yesterday, Cuomo called for two more prisons to be closed – Bayview in Manhattan and Beacon in Dutchess County.

"We propose to close two of the least efficient prison facilities," Cuomo said. "If we're serious about balancing the budget, then we should run government the way it should be run."

Cuomo also wants to close four juvenile justice homes.

This year's budget cutting will spare North Country prisons. That fact drew immediate praise from state Senator Betty Little who issued a statement noting that downstate facilities cost much more to operate.

According to Little, decisions in past years to close facilities in this region – including Camp Gabriels near Saranac Lake and Lyon Mountain in Clinton County — were politically motivated.

"The downward trend in crime is positive. What it means for the future of our correctional system remains to be seen as trends can and do change," Sen. Little said.

Indeed, it's unclear whether the state prison system has finally reached a stable size.

According to the budget department, the prison population is expected to drop by another 800 inmates this year, with more declines expected in the future.

That's a fact Cuomo alluded to in his speech yesterday, as he predicted a "four percent decline in prison populations over the next four years."

Bob Gangi says he thinks taxpayers can save more money by closing more prisons. "In New York state, we still have thousands of low-level drug offenders being sent to prison unnecessarily."

There are still 15 state prisons across the North Country and the downsizing of prisons poses a major economic threat to communities in the North Country from Moriah to Malone to Ogdensburgh that rely heavily on corrections jobs.

The trend has also infuriated the prison guards union, known as NYCOPBA. Union president Donn Rowe issued a statement yesterday calling these latest closures "profoundly disappointing."

Rowe argues that closing facilities will mean the remaining prisons will be more crowded, with more dangerous working conditions for corrections officers. That's a claim that New York state officials reject.

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