Communities in the north of the country prepare for the closure of prisons
MINEVILLE, NY (WCAX) – Six state prisons are set to close in New York City in March, including two in the North Country. It’s a move the state says will save $ 142 million. Kelly O’Brien visited the town of Mineville to learn about the unique rehabilitation programs of the local jail and the impact of its closure on the community.
Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties in upstate New York are home to seven state correctional facilities. But how did all these prisons end up in upstate New York? It dates back to Governor Mario Cuomo
“It was actually a political decision for several reasons. He was Catholic and against the death penalty. I kind of forced him to say that I would not apply the death penalty, but we lock people up a lot. longer, âsaid Karen Murtagh of New York Prisoners’ Legal Services.
With the crime rate rising in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the then Cuomo governor built 33 new prisons statewide, many in the north.
âTo my knowledge, they have been placed to help the economy of upstate New York,â said Carol Calabrese, co-executive director of the Essex County Industrial Development Agency.
âPlaces like Ogdensburg, Moriah, Chateaugay opened prisons in their communities that nobody wanted at the time, especially in the upstate,â said John Roberts of New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association.
But over the years, crime rates have declined and changes in criminal justice policies have diminished the need for incarceration. “We certainly shouldn’t have prisons if we don’t need them and the prison population has grown from a peak of 72,000 in the late 1990s to what it is today – 31,000,000 – which is the lowest since 1984. âMurtagh said.
The state has decided to close correctional facilities – 20 in the past decade – and six more are expected to close this year. âPeople shouldn’t be jumping up and down and saying to keep the prisons open so that I have a job if we don’t need these prisons,â Murtagh said.
But that position is a tough sell in prison towns like Mineville, home to the Moriah Shock Correctional Center. “Thinking that we are not all together is devastating, it’s absolutely devastating,” said Nelida Rodriguez, whose partner works in the prison.
âI don’t think playing with humans or their livelihoods is appropriate just to cut some costs,â said Christina Slattery, who works at Moriah Shock.
The economic domino effect of a closure on communities can run into the millions. “You’re really talking about families who occupy houses, families who pay taxes, send their children to school, buy goods and services, gas stations, medical care, food,” Calabrese said. .
And it’s not just the money. âI also train here at Moriah School. I appreciate that. It makes me happy to make a difference in someone’s life, just like our establishment, âsaid Christina Slattery, who works at Moriah Shock.
The state has said all prison staff will be able to keep their jobs, but may have to relocate or travel long distances, and there is no guarantee that they will be transferred to a nearby facility.
âThe nearest facility is an hour from Moriah Shock. For me having to do this will be a big life change for me and my daughter, âSlattery said.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervisions has a budget of $ 3.6 billion for its 50 state prisons. Officials say, on average, the state spends $ 69,000 per year per inmate. The department was unable to provide the exact cost of running Moriah Shock, nor the expected savings from eliminating it, but in 2015, DOCCS said two unique rehabilitation programs at the facility had enabled State taxpayers save $ 1.5 billion since its inception in 1987.
“We teach them everything, we give them the tools to be successful in life after prison,” said Billie Jo Simpson, who works at the prison.
Moriah Shock is a medium security prison. It currently has 74 detainees for a capacity of 300 people and 107 people on staff. This low capacity is the reason it is on the state chopping block.
âPeople say there are fewer inmates behind bars, Moriah doesn’t even have a fence let alone bars,â Roberts said.
The Shock program cuts drug and alcohol sentence lengths by six months if inmates are on a boot camp style program. A community service requirement also requires inmates to clear pathways, clean prison yards, and even help build the annual Ice Palace at Saranac Lake, something featured in the documentary “Ice Palace: A Love Letter.”
âThey kind of become part of the crew, part of the community, as they work, and I found that fascinating – it was that kind of mix, that cooperation between the locals. who built the Ice Palace and the prisoners, “said director Mark Burns.
Data suggests that the programs have halved the recidivism rate. Those familiar with the Shock Program argue that it shouldn’t be shut down if the state seeks to add more drug addiction and rehabilitation programs. âIt was a mistake. We have all the programs and everything the governor would like the state to do for incarcerated people,â said Simpson.
There are also questions about what will happen to abandoned facilities. âThe communities that have been built around them are suffering the full brunt of it and that is unfortunate. I didn’t think the outlook was what it meant for the communities, I think it was how do I save a dollar here, save a dollar there, âsaid Roberts.
All Moriah Shock inmates will be integrated into the Lakeview Shock Program in Brocton.
Moriah Shock is in MP Matt Simpson’s district. He said its closure “only further exacerbates the problem of mass incarceration in New York State” and urges the governor to visit the prison and reconsider his decision. Senator Dan Stec said: âI am deeply disappointed that Governor Hochul has not reconsidered his decision to shut down Moriah Shock, after numerous discussions with the governor’s office describing the successes of the program and the overall effectiveness it has had over many lives â.
Governor Kathy Hochul announced a plan for prisons in her 2021 State of State Address. She says the closures “will not only save taxpayers millions of dollars, but will also create opportunity. to transform these facilities in a more creative and productive way â.
The next step is to form a commission to examine redevelopment opportunities that will meet the economic needs of the state. She said the commission will be made up of several state agencies, foundations, regional leaders and stakeholders, as well as economic development experts. “In developing an action plan, this cross-cutting group should identify key goals that support New York State’s priorities, such as growing well-paying jobs, skills training for high-growth industries and support for small businesses, âshe said of the group. . “The commission should also take into account factors such as site conditions, surrounding land use, redevelopment costs, local workforce trends, and regional economic development strategies.”
This commission will work to help New York turn empty prison cells into opportunities for more communities to thrive.
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