January 20, 2010

2 local prisons doomed


MORIAH — Prison staffs in Lyon Mountain and Moriah were shocked Tuesday to learn their facilities are now slated to close.

As part of sweeping budget cuts announced by Gov. David Paterson, Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility in Clinton County is expected to close January 2011, with Moriah Shock Incarceration Facility in Essex County to follow in April 2011.

They are two of four facilities now scheduled to close, affecting 57,600 inmates.

State officials say the cuts are being made to further consolidation efforts and eliminate excess capacity.

The closures are expected to reduce staffing by 637 positions, including 17 in managerial staff, mostly through attrition.

The other facilities affected are Butler Correctional Facility in Wayne County and Ogdensburg Correctional Facility in St. Lawrence County.

The cuts are expected to save $14.1 million during the next five years by also eliminating capital-construction projects.

Department of Correctional Services officials said the savings will help cover the costs of enhanced mental-health and sex-offender programs.

Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-Peru) spoke with staff at Lyon Mountain Tuesday morning after hearing the news.

"Certainly we're concerned," she said. "It's never good when we see a facility close. On the other hand ... I'm positive each of the corrections staff, and hopefully most of the civilians, will be able to transfer to other facilities.

"Certainly the focus of the Department of Corrections has been, and I expect will continue to be, not having anyone lose their job."

She called the closure a "certain blow to the small hamlet of Lyon Mountain and Town of Dannemora," which, she noted, is still recovering from the devastating New Year's Day fire that destroyed the town's Highway Garage.

The prison is housed in the former Lyon Mountain school building, and Duprey expects there will be a challenge "getting something (else) viable in that building."

"It's certainly going to be a loss and a tough time for the people who live in Lyon Mountain and the Town of Dannemora."

There are 91 people employed at Lyon Mountain, which housed 135 inmates at the start of the year.

By closing the facility, officials expect to save $7.2 million in annual operating costs and $950,000 in capital-project savings.

Moriah Town Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava said that with the local economy already reeling from the closure of the Champlain Bridge, the announced shutdown of the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility could push things to the brink of disaster.

"I had the most disturbing call I've had in 21 years in office — the Governor's Office informed me they are going to close Moriah Shock," Scozzafava said Tuesday morning.

The impact on southern Essex County communities will be grave, Scozzafava said. He and other Essex County officials are pledging to fight the closure.

"They let our bridge fall apart," Scozzafava said. "Now they're going to take away our major employers. We need to fight this. This will devastate our community."

John Fariss, chief sector steward for New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association at Moriah Shock, said the news was sobering for staff to hear.

Moriah employs 102 people, with 63 of the positions in security.

Fariss said he was more surprised about the shock facility's closure because "we save the state money. Through the history of shock, we've saved the state $2 billion.

"Closing a shock facility does not seem very cost-effective. It's mind boggling."

Moriah is one of four shock programs in the state and the only in the tri-county region.

It has been open for 21 years and has a capacity to house 300 inmates, with 171 currently enrolled in the monthly program.

Fariss expects the closures will have a devastating impact on surrounding communities.

"The loss of our work crews is going to impact all the towns."

One example of the impact, he said, is that Moriah inmate crews are now lined up to work on the Ice Castle in Saranac Lake to fill the vacancy left after the Camp Gabriels facility closed during the last round of cuts resulting in a loss of a number of work crews.

Moriah currently has 11 work crews.

Scozzafava said the inmate work crews that go into local communities will also be lost.

Wilmington Town Supervisor Randy Preston said his town can't afford that loss.

"The Town of Wilmington uses those crews extensively for our spring cleanup, our parks. We cannot afford to hire out that work."

He said state leaders apparently didn't learn anything from the way the Champlain Bridge was handled.

"It's hard for me to fathom that with the incompetence that led to that bridge closure they would do that to Moriah. They make one mistake after another in Albany."

Inmates from Moriah Shock also work on the Essex County Fairgrounds in Westport, Westport Town Supervisor Daniel Connell said.

"We've come to rely on them to cut the cost of government."

DOCS officials said they are considering having crews from other facilities work in the affected communities after the local closure.

Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward (R-Willsboro) said she's joining the fight to keep Moriah Shock open.

"We've already started. I have a meeting with (Department of Correction) Commissioner Fischer. My colleagues ... have pledged to help me try to get the facility open."

Sayward said she's getting documents from when Moriah Shock opened that show its rejuvenating economic impact on the community.

"We're going to try to make that same case again. We're going to get as much going as we can to keep the facility open."

"If Moriah goes down, it's going to be the same as what happened at Gabriels. We're going to get an empty building with nothing there."

Camp Gabriels, located in the Essex County community of Gabriels, closed July 1, 2009.

As the Camp Gabriels site remains vacant, Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) said she doesn't "want to see the same thing happen at Lyon Mountain or Moriah."

Little said the fact that the budget would target upstate prison facilities for closure is not a surprise.

"Closures not only directly impact those employed at correctional facilities, but there's also a ripple effect that is tough for rural and economically depressed communities in the North Country to absorb."

Dannemora Town Supervisor Americo "Ves" Pivetta called the Lyon Mountain closure "terrible."

"The correctional facility closing is very bad news to me and the residents here."

He said the facility, located in a hamlet where the population is 80-percent retired, was a financial asset to the town's tax base, especially for the water district there.

And, he said, "If they leave the building empty, it'll be total chaos and a shame. Something has to be done."

Despite the news, Pivetta remained optimistic that the town would pull through, as it did in the 1960s when local mining operations closed.

"We're a strong community, and I think we'll move forward.

"The community has to get together, and we'll figure it out. We've just got to look forward and see what we can come up with."