Over the past decade, New York has cut its prison population by about 20 percent, while also managing to reduce its crime rate. Now, the state prison system is running at 88 percent capacity, according to the Elmira Star-Gazette. Why is that a problem? The state is still paying to operate 8,000 empty beds. To cut about half of that and save an estimated $72 million, Governor Andrew Cuomo has suggested closing down as many as six prisons and cutting correctional staff, who are currently enjoying a 1 to 3 ratio with inmates (the national average is one officer per 7.5 inmates).
Cuomo has been talking about closing prisons since before he took office in January. His predecessor, former Governor David Patterson, also tried to close down facilities, with some success: an attempt to shut down four in 2010 ended with the legislature stepping in to save two. The Democratic Senate majority’s press release after voting to restore funding for the prisons focused on their economic role in upstate New York:
“Ogdensburg and Moriah Shock are economic engines for the North Country, not only meeting our public protection needs, but also sustaining hundreds of local jobs,” said Senate Democratic Leader John L. Sampson. “From the start our priority was to save these two facilities and keep these jobs in the community.”
Following Cuomo’s announcement that he’ll accelerate the closing trend, similar forces are fighting back:
Assemblyman Gary Finch, R-Union Springs, Cayuga County, which is home to a maximum-security prison in Auburn and a medium-security facility in Moravia, said prison closures would devastate some upstate areas.
“Those are going to be major problems for those communities. I don’t like to think that the prisons are economic issues, but they can be,” he said.
As a sort of mitigation (or peace offering), Cuomo has said any community that suffers a prison closure will receive a $10 million economic development grant to try to rebuild its local job-base in another industry. Certainly, the same sorts of concerns will come up if California manages to reduce its prison population–what happens to prison towns in rural places like the Central Valley and inland Southern California, with little else to build economies around? That’s been an issue in Ione, California, where the proposed shuttering of the Preston Youth Correctional Facility has sparked opposition.
Does anyone know of a prison town that’s lost its prison, but rebuilt its economy?