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As NY moves to close 3 more prisons, communities divided between reform and job losses

Georgie Silvarole
New York State Team

Four days before Christmas last year, Jamie Richmond learned the prison in Watertown near her home would be closing. 

Richmond and her husband own Carson's Pizzeria and Bar in Adams Center, a small hamlet about 10 miles south of Watertown. Prison employees are a huge part of their regular customer base.

And sure, she said, the closure will affect their business. But it affects her family, too, because her two brothers work at the prison as well.

"This is a small hometown, and everyone knows everybody," Richmond said. "You might not have family that is in this predicament, but for those who do, they truly are struggling."

As the state looks to close three correctional facilities — the Watertown prison in northern New York, the Gowanda prison outside Buffalo and the Clinton Annex, which is part of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora near the Canadian border — there’s been a promise that there will be no layoffs.

The closures will save the state $89 million annually and eliminate about 2,750 beds, according to the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

More:New York plans to close three prisons in the coming weeks. Here's where

More:Another round of prison closures may soon be coming to New York: What may happen

For advocates of criminal justice reform, this is a win-win. Prison closures are a byproduct of a changing system, some say, and a nod toward a more refined and effective criminal justice system. 

But for those who work in the facilities, it means a major life change and possible relocation for themselves and their families. And for the communities that rely on prison infrastructure for other resources, it presents a problem they fear the state won't quickly solve. 

A trend of closures 

One of the entrances at   Livingston Correctional Facility in Sonyea.  The medium security prison opened in 1991 and closed in 2019.

Since he took office in 2011, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has closed more than a dozen prisons across the state.

The prison population now sits at 33,340 — a 42% reduction over the last 10 years down from 57,229 people, according to the state prison system. It's at the lowest level in 30 years.

This trend toward closures is a positive sign of changes happening in the state's criminal justice system, said Alexander Horwitz, executive director of New Yorkers United for Justice. 

"Closing prisons isn’t just about closing facilities and then moving the people who are there to other facilities," Horwitz said. "It is about reducing the rate of incarceration, and finding safe ways for people to come home and to be relieved of incarceration. That is the right trend for New York."

Though closing facilities and reducing the overall inmate population is key, reform within the prison and the parole system is just as important, Horwitz said.

New York has a tendency to over-incarcerate for non-criminal offences — like parole violations such as drinking alcohol or missing a meeting with a supervising officer, Horwitz said.

As the state's criminal justice system changes, prison closures are a tangible byproduct. Saving millions of dollars annually is another positive outcome too, he said.

"When we talk about closing prisons, it's unfortunate that we talk about it in terms of shutting buildings down," Horwitz said. "What we're really talking about is lessening the burden of mass incarceration on Black and brown communities; we're talking about lessening the tax burden on New York taxpayers."

State Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-Heuvelton) said losing hundreds of jobs in Watertown, a community of about 25,000, certainly doesn't lessen any burdens. 

"I represent an area that already was struggling economically," Ritchie said. "Four hundred jobs to our region is very significant."

As of December 2020, the Watertown Correctional Facility had a staff of 306 people. The Clinton Annex had a staff of 277 and the Gowanda Correctional Facility had a staff of 671, according to a statement provided by DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey.

Shortly after the announcement was made that the Watertown facility in Jefferson County would be closing, Ritchie gathered with prison employees and their families outside of the building for a press conference. 

Hearing their stories and listening to their concerns about being relocated to positions with new prisons far from their homes was heartbreaking, she said. 

"For them to have gone to work in this environment every day — even when they were probably nervous going into a facility, being in close proximity with so many people — they went every day," Ritchie said. "They listened to the governor every day, too, saying that essential workers ... 'they're our No. 1 priority.' And then how this whole thing played out? I think they are disheartened."

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would have make sense to keep facilities open and move inmates to prisons with lower populations where they'd have more physical space, she said. 

"This apparently must have only been driven by dollars," Ritchie said. "I really can't comprehend how that decision was made."

DOCCS based the closure decisions on a variety of factors, including physical infrastructure, program offerings, facility security level, specialized medical and mental health services, Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said previously.

"Since taking office, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been at the forefront of some of the nation’s most progressive criminal justice reforms by spearheading a series of smart and fair policies that have closed prisons and decreased incarceration rates," Mailey said.

Empty facilities, concerned employees

The Gowanda Correctional Facility in Cattaraugus County, seen here on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, will close at the end of March 2021.

Jason Sardina walked into a meeting shortly after learning the Gowanda Corrections Facility was going to close. There had been rumors — but there were rumors every year, he said. No one believed it would really happen this time. 

"We never thought it'd be us," he said. "Everybody was in shock. ... I was watching grown men break down in tears. It was hard."

He's worked at Gowanda since 2003 as a corrections officer and planned to retire from his position there. He's relocating to a different facility and will have a 50-minute commute starting in April, but it's really the people he works with that he's going to miss more than anything. 

"Gowanda is unlike any jail I've ever worked at. And I'm not just saying that," Sardina said. "For as many officers that we have, it's like a family. ... That's the part that hurt the worst — that these friendships you've made over years are being torn apart."

Communities like Gowanda and Watertown accommodated the state prisons when they were established in the 1980s and 1990s, said Michael Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association.

And in the decades that have passed, those communities have built up around the facilities. 

"They openly accepted these facilities as the state needed areas to have these facilities," Powers said. "It seems like kind of a knee-jerk reaction to a fiscal problem ... A slap in the face to some of these communities up here who were willing to take these facilities and now have them shuttered."

Relocation for more than 1,200 employees is a massive undertaking, Powers said, and one that will not be as simple as it seems.

"The state's told us there'll be no layoffs in any of these closures, but ultimately at the end of the day it has a huge impact on the lives of the men and women who are holding it down in a dangerous and stressful environment," Powers said. "There's a great deal of downside to all of this and a lot of it doesn't get taken into consideration."

GSILVAROLE@Gannett.com

Georgie Silvarole is the backpack reporter for the USA TODAY Network's New York State Team. You can reach her by email at gsilvarole@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @gsilvarole.

2019:New York has closed 17 prisons since 2011. Why their redevelopment has failed