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Watertown program helps keep people out of prison

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In his state of the state address last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo called for more taxpayer dollars to be spent keeping people out of prison. Now the governor's office has unveiled a list of programs that will receive a first round of funding - roughly $5 million dollars in total.

Brian Mann has been following prison-related issues over the last year as part of our Prison Time Media Project.

This morning, Brian reports that one of the programs receiving new dollars from the state is the Urban Mission in Watertown, which helps people with drug and alcohol problems avoid serving time.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

New York’s state inmate population has already declined by roughly a quarter over the last 15 years, meaning about 17,000 fewer men and women behind bars.

Governor Andrew Cuomo Photo:  Mark Kurtz
Governor Andrew Cuomo Photo: Mark Kurtz
In his speech, Governor Cuomo argued that state officials and lawmakers in Albany should work to cut that number even further.

"Reducing recidivism means less crime, it means safer communities, it means fewer taxpayer dollars spent on incarceration," Cuomo argued.

The idea is to divert as many people as possible away from prison into drug treatment, mental health and job training programs.

On Friday, Cuomo announced a package of grants that will go to 23 programs statewide, most of them in urban neighborhoods like Queens and the Bronx.

But one $41,000 grant will also go to the Urban Mission Bridge Program in Watertown, where Drew Mangione is development director.   

He says the program helps give drug and alcohol addicts a second chance

"[They] get their lives back on track, in lieu of jail time," Mangione said, pointing out that keeping men and women out of prison "means that we are saving state and local taxpayers well over $1 million."

Magnione says the Bridge Program has a strong record reducing the number of people who commit new crimes.

Governor Cuomo has also called for a new commission to be formed to look at additional ways to help non-violent offenders re-enter society more successfully.

Soffiyah Elijah, head of the Correctional Association (Photo:  CA)
Soffiyah Elijah, head of the Correctional Association (Photo: CA)
Soffiyah Elijah heads the Correctional Association, a criminal justice reform group in New York City.   She says Cuomo is putting the state’s focus back on the societal problems that lead to addiction and crime.

"We need more dollars for treatment programs, counseling programs, and diversion programs," Elijah argued.

Elijah points out that it costs more than $60,000 a year on average to house a state prison inmate.  She says funding job training and rehab programs makes sense for taxpayers.

"It costs a lot less to provide them with meaningful vocational and education opportunities that don't include locking somebody in a cage."

This move to downsize New York’s prison system is controversial, with four more facilities slated to be mothballed this July – including prisons in Franklin and Saratoga Counties.

But state Senator Betty Little from Queensbury says she supports the governor’s call for more rehab and training programs.

"I don't think we're doing a great job in the transitional area as we transition people from the prison population into the community."

Little says she also wants to see vocational and rehab programs restored inside state prisons.

Prison reform activists like Soffiyah Elijah say they hope the new commission that Governor Cuomo is forming to look at recidivism rates will go even further, proposing programs that shift far more of the state’s dollars away from incarceration.

"I think we are at a pivotal moment and things are starting to move in the right direction.  My hope is that we don't get comfortable with this little bit of progress."

Elijah says she hopes this trend will eventually mean even more prisons closing their doors. 

That idea will face stiff resistance here in the North Country.  The prison guard union NYSCOPBA plans to hold a major rally at the end of the month in Albany aimed at building opposition to more prison downsizing.   

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 Foundation. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org.

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