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Brenda Brue was a nurse at the prison. She was a big voice in the fight to keep the prison open and she says she really loved her job.
Brenda Brue was a nurse at the prison. She was a big voice in the fight to keep the prison open and she says she really loved her job.

When a North Country prison closes, what happens to the town?

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This morning, we visit a community that for the past year has been fighting to keep its local prison. Chateaugay Correctional Facility is just a few blocks outside of the village--a fifteen-minute walk down the main road leads you to an unimposing campus, set back from the road. Chateaugay was the newest facility in the system--one point community members used in their argument not to close the prison.

But despite the community's hard work, the state did not reverse its decision to mothball Chateuagay Correctional--and at the end of this month, the prison's doors will officially close.

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Reported by

Natasha Haverty
Reporter and Producer

Losing a battle to save jobs and a way of life

I meet Brenda Brue on the steps of town hall. Looking at me through a pair of big dark sunglasses, she says losing the fight, failing to save Chateaugay Prison, has been rough.

“It’s like you’re at a long term funeral and it just…doesn’t end.”

Brue was a nurse at the correctional facility, doing sick calls, HIV testing, teaching inmates about how to live a more healthy life when they’re out in the world again. Brue was a big voice in the fight to keep the prison open and she says she really loved her job.

“Just, a delight. I liked working with them. It was wonderful knowing they were going to go back home and knowing they were ready to be introduced back into their society, back into the community, your neighbors, my neighbors, I loved every aspect of that.”

Talking to Brue, it’s clear that this community was really proud of this prison—their prison—people here really believed in the service it was providing to society. 

Billy Jones is Chairman of Franklin County Board of Legislators. He grew up here in Chateaugay.  “So obviously this place, it’s where I live, and it’s near and dear to my heart.”

He’s also a Corrections Officer, working the night shift half an hour away in at a state prison in Malone.

Jones sits at the head of the long, wooden table inside Chateaugay’s town hall.  Over the last year, this table has been surrounded by community members making phone calls, writing up pamphlets, doing anything they could think of to change Governor Andrew Cuomo’s mind and keep the prison open.

“They heard us, I know they did. I just don’t think there was anything more we could have done.” 

What next?  Nobody knows

Downtown Chateaugay Photo: Natasha Haverty
Downtown Chateaugay Photo: Natasha Haverty
 Closing the prison means the loss of 110 good jobs.  That means people no longer spending money here, paying taxes here, raising families here.

Jones says prison jobs have been the best option his community has seen, at least in his lifetime.

“I know there are some people downstate that say you shouldn’t depend on prisons as a job industry. Well, 25 years ago when nobody wanted them they cam here. We accepted them with open arms. And our economy depends on them. So you can’t take them away from us now.”

But for Chateaugay, the fight is over—the prison down the road is already empty. The inmates are gone.  A skeleton crew of staff members are still in there cleaning up. The question now really is, what happens next. 

Here on Main Street, American flags and pink and yellow flower baskets hang off nicely painted front porches, over freshly cut lawns. 

Robert Johnston works at Jericho Joe's on Main Street. He says many of the nice houses and lawns there are thanks to prison jobs. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Robert Johnston works at Jericho Joe's on Main Street. He says many of the nice houses and lawns there are thanks to prison jobs. Photo: Natasha Haverty
 Robert Johnston keeps bar at Jericho Joe’s, a restaurant at the four corners. Sitting out front, he waves his cigarette towards houses down the road, with “For Sale” signs on them.

It's like you're at a long term funeral and it just...doesn't end.
“And they weren’t for sale before. And they’re pretty big houses which means they had to have someone like a CO in it. To make the money, and keep it up and everything.”

The 110 corrections officers and staff members who worked at Chateaugay have all been offered other jobs at other facilities. The problem is, if they move away to be closer to those new jobs, it will mean mean a drain not only of dollars, but also local families—men and women who have been part of this community for generations.

Fear and uncertainty and a sense of loss

“They’re a generous bunch of people who care about kids and families and their community.”

School superintendent Loretta Fowler tells me the Chateaugay District isn’t projecting lower enrollment in the public schools for the coming year. But she still worries about how this loss will play out.

Wendy's Quick Stop, one of the businesses that depended on orders from prison staff and Corrections Officers. Wendy says she's lost a lot of business and worries about the future. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Wendy's Quick Stop, one of the businesses that depended on orders from prison staff and Corrections Officers. Wendy says she's lost a lot of business and worries about the future. Photo: Natasha Haverty
 Just outside Fowler’s office, framed photographs of all the graduating classes of Chateaugay Central School line the hallway. She says a lot of those are faces are kids who grew up and got jobs at the prison.

As I talk with Fowler, she starts to cry.

“The biggest loss is just their contribution, and just their kindness…they’re good people. They’re so good. That’s the most important thing to remember. You think of the people. You know who they are by name. And who their kids are…” 

This fear about the future is everywhere in Chateaugay. The truth is, small town economies in the north country are fragile. And people here don’t know what can possibly replace the prison.

Don Bilow has been Chateaugay’s Town Supervisor for 15 years; he was a farmer for 50 years.

“Yes, we’d rather have a GM plant or something but we don’t have a choice. We’re kind of away from the highways, shipping in and out of here is a bit of an issue.”

Billy Jones agrees. Back at the town hall, he says what his community can hope for is that something else will come in to the empty prison, and bring new jobs here – the state has offered redevelopment funds to make that happen, but he’s not sure that’s realistic.

“I don’t want to be skeptical I like to think of myself as optimistic but it’s gonna be tough to replace 110 jobs in the community. You’re not gonna do that over night. We realize that. It’s gonna be a long, long time to do that.”

For Chateaugay's staff, longer commutes, new challenges

Brenda Brue, the nurse who worked at the prison, says she took the Department of Corrections’ offer to transfer her to another facility, and now she works at Upstate Correctional in Malone, which is a half an hour away.

Brue says it’s not the commute, or the different hours that she’s upset about, it’s that she’s lost that sense of meaning she had when she worked at the prison here in her town. 

One big difference is that Chateaugay Correctonal was a medium security prison—most of the inmates were there because they’d violated their parole, and were doing short sentences.

A lot of the workers from Chateaugay have been transferred to much tougher facilities, in Dannemora or Malone, where inmates are serving long sentences, often for violent crimes. 

“Inmates locked in, no contact, not interested in learning…these guys could care less most of ‘em.”

In the end, Brue says she and her coworkers at the prison were clumped into a numbers game, caught up in sweeping changes that have begun to transform New York’s prison system.

“I don’t feel like the importance of what we did was understood. I know they wanted to make cuts, I know they had to cut some place, but I just don’t think that was a good spot to cut.”

Chateaugay Prison will be officially closed, and turned over to a state development corporation on July 26th.

As part of our Prison Time Media Project, NCPR profiled Chateaugay's fight to save the state correctional facility over the last year.  You can hear those stories here and here.

 

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