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Public Safety

As Cuomo's Prison Closings become Reality, Some Question the Specifics

For reader comments on whether to close Arthur Kill, go here.

Brooklyn house of detention
Gov, Andrew Cuomo has opted to close the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island while leaving many prisons in northern New York state open.

For reader comments on whether to close Arthur Kill, go here.

(To read about Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $621 million plan to build a new city jail and renovate two others, go here.)

By many counts, the New York state prison system has some 8,000 empty beds. On June 30, the Cuomo administration announced a move that would cut that number almost in half.

The plan would close seven prisons across the state -- doing away with 3,800 of those empty beds.

Strikingly, 50 percent of the beds being eliminated are in New York City, while the city houses only 25 percent of the state's prison population. In particular the plan would close the one medium security prison in the five boroughs -- Arthur Kill on Staten Island –- while leaving open similar facilities in rural upstate communities. More than 60 percent of the state's prisoners are from New York City.

Cuomo avoided shuttering the prisons with the most vacancies, many of which are women's prisons. One such facility, Albion Correctional has 66 percent of its beds empty. It will remain open.

This spring’s state budget deal gave Cuomo the power to shutter prisons of his choosing after consulting with legislators. Criminal justice advocates have been clamoring for Cuomo to downsize the prison system, which his father expanded, partly to save money.

Advocates also believed that shutting prisons in rural northern communities would result in fewer New York City residents being incarcerated far from their homes. Letting people serve closer to their homes would enable them to maintain contact with family members -- something advocates say reduces recidivism and bolsters reentry to civil society.

Cuomo tackled the issue head on in his state of the state address -- seemingly addressing legislators from northern New York who cling to the jobs prisons provide in to their communities. "An incarceration program is not an employment program," Cuomo said. "If people need jobs, let's get people jobs. Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs. Don't put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs. That's not what this state is all about. And that has to end this session."

Meanwhile, unions as well as communities across the state, particularly those in the economically hard-pressed upstate areas that rely on prisons for jobs, lobbied behind the scenes and protested loudly as the Cuomo administration mulled over which prisons would get the axe.

The closing plan announced at the end of June will probably save the state money. But it almost certainly will not end up with New York City residents serving sentences near their homes. In fact, it could have the opposite effect.

Padlocked Prisons

The Cuomo administration's list surprised many observers. Prisons in northern New York were thought to be some of the most vulnerable, but instead two facilities in the five boroughs, one near Buffalo, and four in mid to upstate were targeted for closing.

Scheduled for closure are Buffalo Work Release (Erie County), Camp Georgetown (Madison County), Summit Shock (Schoharie County) and Fulton Work Release (Bronx County); and three male medium security facilities: Arthur Kill (Richmond County), Mid-Orange (Orange County) and Oneida (Oneida County). Four of the prisons -- Buffalo Work Release, Camp Georgetown, Summit Shock and Fulton Work Release -- are minimum security facilities.

The administration has said inmates will be transferred to other facilities. Communities targeted for closings will have access to a $50 million fund and to tax credits. It is expected that the closings will save the state $72 million in 2011-12 and $112 million in 2012-13. Although a timetable for closing all the facilities is not clear Assemblywoman Annie Rabbit told constituents that the Mid-Orange facility will be closed on Dec. 1.

The list received mixed reactions. The response from unions was muted, perhaps because they were involved in negotiations about the closings.

The New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association did not return calls for this article. However union president Donn Rowe issued a press release saying, "The closure of any prison in New York State represents a significant threat to the integrity and safety of the New York State prison system." It concluded, "We are obviously very disappointed by today’s action but first and foremost with any action must be to preserve the safety of the men and women who work in and protect these prisons. We will continue to work with the governor’s team and monitor the situation closely."

Soffiyah Elijah of the Correctional Association, which did major lobbying to eliminate the Rockefeller Drug Laws, praised Cuomo for acting on his promise to do away with empty prison beds but expressed concern about which prisons the governor chose to shut. In particular, she notes that the program will eliminate one third of the state's work release beds. According to Elijah, New York’s work release programs has already been cut by 25,000 slots since the late 1990s to only 1,900 in 2010.

"Work release helps people in prison gain critical employment skills to prepare them for a smooth transition back to their communities," said Elijah in a statement.

Staten Island Shutodwn

Even more troubling to Elijah is that 50 percent of the total beds targeted for elimination are in New York City. The 931-bed Arthur Kill Prison represents one of six state prisons in the five boroughs. It now houses 794 inmates.

Elijah says she has heard from a number of families who say the closing of Arthur Kill would keep them from visiting incarcerated relatives.

"People from Staten Island have a major concern. The closure will create quite a hardship for them. They can't make the long trip to visit inmates upstate because of physical or financial hardship." Elijah said. She added maintaining a connection with family is "one of the prime factors in reentry and avoiding recidivism."

Staten Island Sen. Diane Savino says she is mystified by the Cuomo administration's decision to close Arthur Kill because it flies in the face of one purported mission of prison downsizing -- keeping prisoners closer to their homes.

"One of the things that the governor wanted to accomplish with prison closures was addressing the issue that the majority of prisoners come from downstate; they're sent upstate, they're separated from their families and communities, which contributes to recidivism in many ways. From that perspective it really makes no sense," said Savino. "Here's a prison that's easy to get to, where children can maintain relationships with their fathers, men are able to maintain relationships with their communities. It doesn’t make any sense to send them far away."

Savino says she recently visited the prison, "to talk to staff there to get a handle on what will happen to not just the people who work there, who are almost entirely Staten Islanders, but also the inmates, and what we found was that on every level, fiscally and policy wise, the decision to close Arthur Kill is the wrong one," said Savino.

There are over 400 employees at Arthur Kill and at least 300 of them are from Staten Island.

Savino says the state spent nearly $40 million on upgrades to Arthur Kill for over a decade and that the process of upgrading the power plant and boilers is still underway. "So whatever money would be saved allegedly by the closure of the facility has already been lost in the investment," says Savino.

Not everyone on Staten Island, though, sees shuttering Arthur Kill as a bad thing. Two Republican state legislators see opportunity in its closing.

"There could be a silver lining for that part of my Assembly district," said Assemblymember Lou Tobacco told the Staten Island Advance in March when the closing was just rumored. He added that he doesn't hear people saying, "'Hey, I'm glad I have a prison in the neighborhood.'"

"It is 160 acres of choice Staten Island land," Sen. Andrew Lanza told the Staten Island Advance. "There are plenty of economic uses, retail development like a Wegmans, a corporate park. The (current) jobs could be replaced with 2,000 to 3,000 jobs."

City Councilmember Vincent Ignizio agrees. He said there has long been resistance to having the prison in the area. "Outside of the people who work in the prison, there is not a huge feeling of loss amongst the community but more of a concern for what will come in its place," Ignizio said.

In fact Ignizio sees the closing as an opportunity for economic development for an "underdeveloped part of my district." He thinks the property could be snatched up quickly for development -- specifically by Wal-Mart.

"There are major retailers who have interest in coming to the south shore of Staten Island. We know that Wal-Mart has been looking around in the community of the south shore of Staten Island as a potential site, so there is a host of retail opportunities now and additional land that wasn’t on the market a couple of months ago."

Savino scoffs at the idea. "Whatever happens with the prison, it will years before anything else is on that property." She says it could take more than half a year to close the facility and transfer inmates.

Savino estimates it could take two to five years before something could replace it. "So what happens to all of the businesses in that community that rely on the prison for its business? What do they do, wait patiently for something to happen?"

North Country Jobs

In announcing the plan Cuomo said it was "the result of very careful and detailed analysis and deliberation" and targeted facilities that could be closed "without compromising public safety "

Some legislators see a clear reasoning behind the closures.

"It's very good news for the North Country. The governor understands that we need more private sector development before we can stop relying on government jobs." Republican Sen. Betty Little of Queensbury told the Post Star. The article noted that Little said prisons "like Arthur Kill in Staten Island, will be a much easier sell in the private sector than those in rural communities and their closure will have a smaller effect on local unemployment lines."

Advocates say that Cuomo's closures will do nothing to change the fact that prisoners from the five boroughs drive the economy of much of northern New York.

"We've encouraged the governor to put money into reentry programs and to focus on closing maximum security facilities upstate," said Elijah.

She says that many prisoners are mistakenly classified as maximum security risks. Data provided by the Department of Corrections shows a 22 percent overall decline in prisoner population since 1999 –- to around 56,000 today. The number of minimum and medium security prisoners has declined even more sharply -– a 19.5 percent drop in inmates at medium security prisons between 2001 and 2010 and a 57.2 percent decline in those at minimum security facilities. But the decline in maximum security prisoners was only 2 percent. From 2001 to 2010, the number of inmates housed at maximum security prisons declined from 25,331 to 24,822.

Elijah says that decline should be much steeper, as prisoners who do not pose much risk are now lumped into maximum security status. Elijah would like to see prisoners released earlier after participating in rehabilitation programs. She also advocates the use of more alternative sentencing to further reduce the prison population, paving the way perhaps for more prisons to be shut.

That could be risky she admits. "It’s clear that any elected official is courageous in proposing prison closures. It has a dangerous effect; there is so much push back," Elijah said.

Will there be more closings? "Only Gov. Cuomo knows that. We hope there will be more. There were reportedly 8,000 unused beds, and he has closed about half of them," said Elijah.

However, experts say that the remaining beds are not quite empty; the Department of Corrections says about 2,500 of them must be kept open to move prisoners who may be sick or become security risks. Nearly another 2,000 are supposed to be kept open in case there is an influx of prisoners, much as there was in the days when Gov. Mario Cuomo built so much of today’s prison system.

Zach Bergson contributed reporting on this story.

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