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Fewer inmates have meant fewer prisons. It turns out Camp Gabriels was part of a slow but important national trend. Source: Save Camp Gabriels
Fewer inmates have meant fewer prisons. It turns out Camp Gabriels was part of a slow but important national trend. Source: Save Camp Gabriels

NY, US see dramatic drop in prison inmate population

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New York state officials say the state's prison population is expected to drop again this year by nearly 800 inmates.

The Department of Corrections will close two more prisons this year, bringing to a total of nine the number of correctional facilities shut down since 2011.

Inmate populations in New York have been edging downward for more than a decade. But a report from the Justice Department suggests that for the first time in decades, fewer Americans nationwide are being sent to prison.

Surveys of state and Federal prisons nationwide show the number of inmates actually declined over the last three years - the first downward trend in a generation.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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I'm standing outside the rusted metal gate of Camp Gabriels, a minimum security prison in northern New York that closed in 2011. This entryway that inmates used to keep neat and tidy is dotted now with weeds.

Prisons like this one were built fast during the forty-year expansion of America's state and Federal corrections system, when inmate population exploded from a few hundred thousand to more than two million.

When I started looking at this twelve years ago, the idea of dropping prison populations in any particular state would be met with laughter.
But a survey by the Justice Department shows that in 2010 and again 2011, the total number of inmates nationwide actually dipped for the first time.

Adam Gelb is with the Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project, a group that works with state agencies to help them cut inmate populations (here's their March 8, 2013 statement on the dropping U.S. Prison count.)

"It's a really big deal. Those of us who follow this thought that the corrections population was going to keep rising and rising almost forever, defying the laws of physics."

Gelb says the declines so far are modest, with the total number of prison inmates down by about one percent in 2012, as compared with 2009.

Still, observers say the country is finally reaping the benefit of lower crime rates, which have been dropping in most of the US since the 1990s.

At the same time, many state lawmakers who were once tough on crime are now battling big deficits. That means more states backing away from lengthy mandatory sentences, especially for nonviolent drug crimes.

And California, the state with one of the country's largest prison systems, has been scrambling to meet a federal court mandate to cut prison overcrowding.

Peter Wagner is with a group called the Prison Policy Initiative. He says the fact that even "red" states like Texas are shrinking prison populations means the national conversation about crime and punishment has shifted. He says he thinks thinking about prisons is "in a different moment" than it was when he started looking at the issue twelve years ago.

"The idea of dropping prison populations in any particular state would be met with laughter. Today it's something that lots of big states are doing, even very conservative states."

The trend can produce big dividends. According to one study, by a group called the Sentencing Project, six states were planning to close prisons last year, saving taxpayers more than 300 million dollars.

But closing prisons is controversial, especially in the hundreds of rural communities across the US, places like Beacon New York, that have come to rely on the incarceration industry for jobs.

"The actual hit to the Beacon economy will be severe." says New York State Senator Terry Gipson.

He spoke with YNN television earlier this year after learning that a prison in his district will be mothballed, costing more than a hundred high-paying jobs.

But while some prisons are closing, producing a net decline in inmate populations, the momentum of mass-incarceration in America hasn't vanished entirely.

The latest surveys show the number of inmates still rising in roughly half the states. And Pew's Adam Gelb points out that the biggest player, the Federal prison system, is also still expanding.

"The Federal prison population is growing faster than any of the state populations at this point and there really isn't a move in Congress to take a look at the sentencing laws and other policies and procedures that could head it off."

While states were cutting the number of people behind bars the last few years, the Federal system grew by nearly ten thousand inmates, with half the Federal inmate population now made up of nonviolent offenders.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

 

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