Apr 18, 2014 fbook icon twitter icon rss icon

Some Prisons Closing Thanks to Recession

FALLSBURG, N.Y. — The Sullivan Annex, a
minimum-security state prison perched on a slope above a fishing creek
here in the foothills of upstate New York, is an unlikely political
battleground.

A
perimeter fence with no barbed wire surrounds the tree-lined complex,
which holds two single-story brick dormitories. Inmates in dark-green
garb, most convicted of minor offenses, frequently leave the grounds to
paint, pick up litter and do other jobs in this rural community about
two hours north of Manhattan. A swing set on a spacious patch of grass
keeps inmates’ children busy when they visit.

Despite
the serene appearance — a stark contrast to the barbed-wire-enclosed
maximum-security prison just up the road — the Sullivan Annex is at the
center of a pitched struggle between state officials on one hand and
the powerful New York correctional officers’ union and local leaders on the other.

Hammered
by the recession and trying to squeeze money out of every state agency,
New York is closing the Sullivan Annex and nine other minimum- and
medium-security prison facilities by Oct. 1 to save an estimated $52
million over two years.

Hundreds
of union members are expected to protest the plan — which is now final
— at a rally in Albany, the state capital, on Tuesday (June 2). The
union is airing TV and radio commercials
that blame the state for jeopardizing the safety of correctional
officers while sparing well-paying administrative positions that are
away from the front lines. And local leaders say lost prison jobs will
worsen an already unsteady economic situation in their communities.

The closures
are part of a state budget agreement to tackle a more than $16 billion
budget gap, created in part by staggering revenue losses after Wall
Street’s collapse. Other states, including Colorado, Kansas, Nevada and
North Carolina, also have considered closing prisons this year as a way
to save money in tough times.

The
roughly 140 inmates at the Sullivan Annex — in addition to 530 inmates
at the other prisons or camps that are slated to close — will be moved
to other facilities with open beds. Meanwhile, the state has mailed letters
to the 550 correctional officers and civilian employees whose positions
will be eliminated, including 55 at the Sullivan Annex.

Most
will continue to work for the state. Like the inmates, however, they
will be moved to other prisons, sometimes hundreds of miles away, and
have new responsibilities.

“We
are like everybody else. We have to cut back. We just don’t have the
money,” said Erik Kriss, a spokesman with the state Department of
Correctional Services, which is overseeing the closures. “These are
different times, and this is a big crisis that we face.”

As
state officials like Gov. David Paterson (D) and corrections
commissioner Brian Fischer are finding, however, closing a prison —
even when there is space for inmates and work for correctional officers
elsewhere — is easier said than done.

The union here has argued that moving more inmates into less space will create “the most dangerous conditions ever” for prison workers, even as the state disputes that assertion.

Local
politicians worry about the economic consequences. In rural towns like
Fallsburg (population 13,000), where empty store fronts dot Main
Street, even relatively small employers such as the Sullivan Annex
provide well-paying jobs and generate income for local businesses. New
York’s prison system is this county’s top employer,
operating not only the annex and maximum-security prison in Fallsburg
but also a medium-security facility in the neighboring town of
Woodbourne.

Sullivan
Annex employees “are renting apartments, buying groceries, buying gas,”
said Gary Dahlman, a correctional officer at the annex. “All that stuff
affects the economy.”

New
York’s clash over prison closures has stirred worries that are familiar
to other states considering similar plans in tight times. Proposed
closures often run into opposition from unions and communities that
have come to depend on prisons for much-needed jobs and other,
less-noticed benefits.

In
Nevada, where a wave of home foreclosures and a slump in tourism have
helped create a historic state budget crisis, Gov. Jim Gibbons (R)
earlier this year proposed closing the 841-bed Nevada State Prison in
Carson City to save $33 million over two years. The plan was backed by
Howard Skolnik, the state corrections chief, but lawmakers rejected the
proposal after prison workers complained that up to 200 jobs would be
eliminated or relocated and local officials mounted their own protests,
citing economic concerns.

In
Kansas, local officials have opposed the closing of a minimum-security
prison in El Dorado, about 30 miles east of Wichita, saying they don’t
know how they will keep up with park maintenance and other community
jobs that the inmates perform. A Republican state representative from
the region is working to get the state corrections department to change
its mind and keep the prison open.

Here
in New York, work crews from the Sullivan Annex have stocked trout in
local rivers, shoveled around fire hydrants after snowstorms, worked at
a nearby food bank and cleaned up campgrounds, said Dahlman, the prison
officer. Now that the state has announced it is closing the prison, he
said, crews are accepting fewer requests from churches and other
community groups in case they won’t be able to finish the jobs.

The
inmates’ work “was very helpful, especially to cash-strapped
communities like ours,” Steve Levine, the town supervisor here, told Stateline.org in the office of the lumber store he owns near the center of town.

But
not all officials in this county are fighting the state's plan. In
nearby Monticello, a town of 7,000, Mayor Gordon Jenkins — who also
works the graveyard shift as a correctional officer at the
maximum-security prison in Fallsburg — said he is encouraged by the
trend of decreasing inmate populations that has allowed New York to
close prisons.

“Unions,
that’s their job, to have people working, and I can respect that,”
Jenkins said in an interview in his office. But, he said, he would much
rather have a hospital in his community than a prison.