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Homes in the village of Chateaugay. The prison there will close on July 26th. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Homes in the village of Chateaugay. The prison there will close on July 26th. Photo: Natasha Haverty

How prison closures could be a good thing for the North Country

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This week we visited the town of Chateaugay, and heard from people there about what's it been like to lose their local prison.

Over the past year, the community fought to keep the Chateaugay Correctional Facility open, organizing rallies at home and with legislators in Albany, arguing that the state would be turning its back on Chateaugay if it went forward with its plans to mothball the prison.

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Reported by

Natasha Haverty
Reporter and Producer

Chateaugay Prison will officially close on July 26. People there say the loss is goes deeper than the 110 local jobs, and the money that will leave Chateaugay as the prison staff transfer to other facilities and stop supporting local businesses—it’s the loss of families, of Correctional Officers and civilian staff, who have been part of the community for generations.

But the closing of Chateaugay prison is just one step in a gradual process going on in New York—what Governor Andrew Cuomo this year called “reducing the madness of an incarceration society.” The number of people locked up in New York’s prison system has been shrinking for 14 years, and every year, a few more prisons are slated for closure. That means big changes for communities in the North Country.

Peter Wagner directs the Prison Policy Initiative. He’s been tracking these changes across New York state, and the country. He told Natasha Haverty that while closing the prison is a loss for Chateaugay, it could also be an opportunity for the community to do something “better." 

Peter Wagner: Prisons were installed in the upstate communities in the 1980s and the 1990s, as this recession-proof form of economic development. But since then, we’ve learned two things: That every prison is not guaranteed to be needed forever, and that prisons are a pretty inefficient way to give people jobs.

So, one of the big downsides to building a prison, is that a lot of the money isn’t spent locally. Workers commute into the prison town a lot of the purchasing is done centrally at the state level. So, local businesses are not supported as much as they should be given the amount of money that is being spent.

And one of the reasons that prisons are clustered in the North Country is that prisons discourage other kinds of investments. When you get one prison, the only thing you can get after that is another prison. So when you close one of these small facilities it creates another opportunity to do something better for the region.

Now that’s not saying that there isn’t going to be a transition, that transitions aren’t painful or that it’s not a lot of work to come up with a new idea to use this land, to use this opportunity. But there’s this tremendous opportunity, to kind of turn this short-term disappointment into something that can actually change the region for the better in the long term.

Natasha Haverty: So, what are some ways you think the state could do just that? Take this opportunity and make it better for the region in the long term?

PW: Well, the big one is to work with local people to identify some new uses for the property. So, this is the most basic level, but marketing it to people, to investors, to see what kind of ideas they want to bring to it. Also, working with local community groups to kind of come up with some of their own ideas for what would be a better use of this land. Because there may be some really good ideas there in the community, that are actually able to be turned into a marketing plan for the land. And to spend some state money to make sure that this land is used as soon as possible, and in as productive a way as possible.

The handwriting has been on the wall since the days of Gov. Pataki, that some facilities in New York need to close. And it’s a challenge, because the location matters. Some of these locations are a little bit remote, some of them come with environmental challenges. But there is a real kind of value that comes from using this kind of infrastructure that was built, whether it’s the prison buildings or whether it is the sewer and the other services that are already there that can make it kind of enticing to someone else to do something that is actually much more rewarding to the community than a prison.

Also, remember, these public prisons are not paying property taxes to the local community. So, you put in some for-profit development and you can actually increase the town’s revenue.

NH: It’s interesting that you bring that up, I mean going to the school in Chateauguay, she said that "there’s a lot of resources that are there that we would love." The lights on their field, you know, "we would love to have lights on our sports fields." And it’s noticeable driving by. It’s a cleaner, newer building than anything.

PW: That’s an interesting kind of framing to think about how these opportunities are. And we can look at that at just the level of the lights on the sports field. We can talk about stripping a facility and moving it across town. We can also talk about, like wait a minute, why can’t this field be used for the town? Why can’t we open this up? This is an asset that is ready to go. Would the town want to buy parts of the facility? We want the sports field, we want this part. That’s the creative outside of the box thinking that actually makes the community stronger.

This is a transition, from one industry, from one era, to another. And that’s a painful transition to make, but it’s a real opportunity to do something better. And now that it is inevitable, now that it’s happening, the real question is: What should this property become? What role will the residents of the town have in determining that? And how can the state make that transition as easy as possible? This is something that is going to require thinking outside of the box and coming up with some new ideas.

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