By FELICIA KRIEG Press-Republican
---- — CHATEAUGAY — About 600 gathered Saturday at the Chateaugay Recreation Park to protest the scheduled closure of Chateaugay Correctional Facility.
“We believe (this) was a simple budget decision and was not thought through,” said Don Rowe, president of New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA).
Chateaugay Correctional Facility — scheduled to close July 26, 2014 — is a medium security prison that currently houses 234 inmates, six short of its capacity.
Its closure will be the third prison to be shut down in the North Country since 2009 when the state closed Camp Gabriels. Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility was shuttered in 2011.
While the 111 employees that work at the prison will be placed at other correctional facilities, the closure will still be a loss of 111 North Country jobs in a town of 833 residents, New York State Senator Betty Little said.
“This is one of the largest employers in the North Country. We need to fight this tooth and nail.”
State Assemblywoman Janet Duprey said county jails are overwhelmed with convicts who should be in state prison.
And Rowe said there’s already overcrowding in the prisons.
There are 10,000 inmates in the system who share their sleeping area with another inmate, sometimes called “double bunking,” Rowe said.
That creates a safety issue for both staff and inmates, Rowe said, and the problem worsens with each prison closure as inmates are relocated and prisons fill up.
“They (state officials) need to put a plan in place and get an inside look at these facilities,” said Chris Hickey, executive vice president of NYSCOPBA.
A closer look will enable officials to understand the need for the facilities to remain open and for the system to run the way it was designed, Hickey said.
’THEY TREAT YOU LIKE FAMILY’
Hickey said the negative effects of closing a prison go deeper than simply moving the location of a person’s job.
“It creates upheaval in their personal life and their family life,” Hickey said. “It’s not necessary.”
Correction Officer Ernesto Perez moved from Mexico to California and then to New York, starting his career with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in 2000.
Perez moved voluntarily from Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, N.Y., a maximum-security prison, to Chateaugay Correctional in 2004.
“Chateaugay is unique,” Perez said. “They treat you like a family.”
Perez said he has been able to connect with and counsel inmates, helping them in a way he doesn’t believe he could at a larger prison.
“You get to talk to the inmates one-on-one,” he said. “You don’t just give direct orders.”
And even though he is a racial minority in the area, he said he has experienced no discrimination at his job, a change from working at Green Haven.
“They accepted me with open arms,” he said.
Perez lives in Malone with his wife and five children.
‘QUALITY OF LIFE’
Duprey recently spoke with a woman working in one of the offices at the prison when she toured the facility.
She lives in Malone and her son has the opportunity to play hockey because she finishes work in time to bring him to practice.
If the woman is moved to another prison, her son may have to give up the sport he loves, Duprey said.
“That’s looking at the quality of life for a family.”
“It will have a ripple effect in the community,” Franklin County Legislature Chairman D. Billy Jones said of the closure, pointing to the local businesses and organizations that will suffer when they lose the patronage and volunteerism of those who work at Chateaugay Correctional Facility.
Signs drawn by local children decorated the walls of the Recreation Center building.
One read “Condemned property will go up.”
Chateaugay Town Supervisor Jason LaPlante echoed that sentiment when he spoke to the crowd.
“Just take a walk down Route 11 and take a look at the closed businesses and abandoned buildings that already exist.”
“We all remember when these prisons were being built,” Franklin County Legislator Paul Maroun said. “Senator (Ronald) Stafford told me once, ‘We’re doing it for the economy of the North Country because nobody else in the state wants these facilities.’”
“He also said, ‘We’re also doing it to keep the crooks off the street to make it safer for everybody in New York state.’ That’s what corrections is supposed to be doing.”
County revenue from sales and property taxes will decrease when the prison closes and agencies ranging from fire departments to churches will be affected, Maroun said.
“Chateaugay is the newest building in the fleet for corrections. Why do we want to close that?”
And the prison will become cheaper to operate as new natural gas lines are expected to save at least 50 percent on the prison’s operations and maintenance costs, Maroun said.
The governor’s decision to close some of the area’s largest employers contradicts his promise to create jobs and grow the North Country’s economy, Chateaugay Town Council member William Trombly said.
“It seems remarkable to me how someone can justify wanting to stimulate economic development in the North Country on the one hand and, on the other hand, remove a major source of employment.”
Trombly said if the state would agree to keep the prison open on the condition that some changes are made in its operating structure, the employees would welcome that.
“We can change the mission (of the prison) if you like,” Trombly said. “Change the security level if you like. Change it in any way you (Cuomo) think it will be a benefit of taxpayers of the state of New York.”
Speakers at the event urged attendees to write personal, handwritten letters to the governor so he can see how the closure will affect them.
The count of those who had signed a petition to be sent to Cuomo was 270 a few minutes after 1 p.m., as attendees began making their way home.
Among the facts and figures given by the speakers at the event, Perez articulated what seemed to be the overarching theme of the rally.
“It’s not about saving the jail, it’s about saving the community.”
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