KIM SMITH DEDAM
CHATEAUGAY — The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision plans to close Chateaugay Correctional Facility next year as it continues to “right-size” the prison system.
The state said shuttering four prisons will save taxpayers more than $30 million.
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Chateaugay employs 111 people and incarcerates 234 inmates, all technical parole violators with short holds, according to a release from the Department of Corrections.
The prison’s capacity is 240 inmates.
The Chateaugay prison had been cut in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget in January, but funding for it was returned through the Assembly’s spending plan.
Reached on Friday, Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-Peru) said the plan to eliminate the prisons came out of “no place.
“I certainly am very concerned,” she told the Press-Republican.
“The first word I had of it was a call from the Governor’s Office today. They are giving the required one-year notice.”
Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) was also caught unawares by the news.
“I’m working on gaining more details and what can be done to prevent the closure (of Chateaugay),” she said in a statement.
“Other regions of the state not only have a better capacity to absorb the economic impact of a closure, but the real estate is of much higher value.
“Camp Gabriels, abandoned in 2009, still sits mothballed. And the 27-acre Lyon Mountain property just sold at auction to the lone bidder for the asking price of $140,000.”
New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPA) President Donn Rowe told the Press-Republican that the union will push back.
“I don’t think anybody saw it coming. Certainly, we’re going to push back on the governor and ask legislators and friends of ours to join us,” he said in an interview.
In a statement, Rowe blamed Gov. Andrew Cuomo, saying he “has taken the Legislature out of a decision-making process in what is principally a budgetary action.
“More alarmingly,” he continued, “... the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision attempts to create the illusion that the state system is rife with empty beds, but this is only made possible by double-bunking inmates.
“... the state continues to warehouse inmates by double-bunking and maintaining crowded and understaffed facilities.”
The four closures would make 13 prisons shuttered under Cuomo’s tenure, along with two during the prior administration, Rowe said.
Also tapped to shut down are minimum security Monterey Shock in Schuyler County and Butler Correctional Facility in Wayne County and Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility in Saratoga County, both medium security.
The closure date for all four sites is July 26, 2014.
The DCCS release cited “a substantial reduction in the state crime rate and drug offenses, which has caused a shrinking inmate population and less of need to keep more prisons open.”
Randy Page, vice president representing the Northern Region of NYSCOPA, said he contacted Duprey and Little when the announcement was made Friday.
“It hasn’t got anything to do with the current state budget,” he said.
“What they gave today was a one-year closure notification under the one-year closure bill. The Assembly restored funding for Chateaugay in their budget, so he (Cuomo) gave them notice he is closing these four prisons in one year.”
‘TON OF BRICKS’
“Our legislators are certainly going to argue to put (the facilities) back in the budget,” Page said. “But under the law, they can put the money back in the budget, and (the governor) doesn’t have to use it.
“Gov. Cuomo is the one we have to convince. We adamantly oppose any closure of any facility.”
“We’ll do all that we can to get this decision reversed,” Duprey said.
“I don’t know what led up to this decision; nobody does. Certainly, next week I will be following up with this.”
Franklin County Legislative Chairman D. Billy Jones of Chateaugay said the announcement hit them like a “ton of bricks.”
“We’re taken aback, but we’re going to prove the positive,” he said.
“We can show that, as of early next year, we’ll cut the energy costs at that facility with the new natural gas lines coming in,” he said. “We have plans for a windmill over there, and it’s a useful facility for parolees.
“We can also prove land value. With anything below Albany, the property value is going to be twice or three times what it is in the North Country. We can prove that this facility is worthwhile to keep open for New York state.”
‘CLOCK IS TICKING’
Franklin County Legislator Paul Maroun said he is sure there will be a budget battle ahead over Chateaugay.
“As a legislator, I’m concerned about any time we talk about losing jobs in Franklin County. That’s 111 jobs that would be lost at a time when the governor is trying to increase economic development here.”
Overall, Maroun said, three pressing questions remain unanswered with the plan to close Chateaugay.
“What about the safety and security of correction officers — where are these transfers going to go, and will it overcrowd another facility?
“I think there are 75 correction officers at Chateaugay, are we going to lose those in the county? That building is fairly new, and what happens to that?
“We’ve got Lyon Mountain (correctional) that was just sold way under value; we’ve got Camp Gabriels that hasn’t sold in four years.
“People aren’t jumping out of the woodwork to buy these facilities.”
Maroun also referenced the natural-gas line now under construction.
“... one of the reasons I voted for that was to help the three major prisons in Malone and the one in Chateaugay cut costs.
“I think that the governor started the clock ticking. Today is the 26th. There certainly is going to be a budget battle to convince the governor that we need these jobs here.”
The struggle to keep prisons open in the North Country has become an annual event.
According to the most recent State Department of Labor statistics available (2011), more than 17,000 employees in the North Country work in public sector jobs.
Franklin County’s unemployment rate as of April this year was 9.7 percent, nearly two points above the state average of 7.8 percent.
“The public sector is a relatively large employer in the North Country,” the Labor Department report said.
“Average weekly wages ($859) in the public sector are also significantly above the all-industry average of $687. ... the North Country has many state correctional, disability and recreational facilities and there are many small local government entities that are too far apart to benefit from economies of scale.”
“It’s one more time,” Duprey said of the threat to close Chateaugay.
“They’re taking a good employer out of the small communities that depend on these jobs. With the (seniority placement) bumping that goes with the reassignment process, there are people that are going to be seriously affected by this.”
Funding for the facility was maintained in the state budget this year, she said of the threat to close Chateaugay’s prison.
“So this is certainly unexpected. I’ve spoken with some folks who work there, and they are worried. They wanted some reassurance that it is a year’s notice. Many of them know they’ve left other jobs to go (to Chateaugay). It leaves a lot of anxiety for people.”
‘NO EARLY RELEASE
Department of Corrections said the closure date “will allow for a gradual transition, providing affected employees with more options for positions within the department and other agencies.”
DCCS cites an overall decline in the inmate population “largely due to a 15 percent decrease in the state crime rate over the past 10 years; a 13 percent reduction in the number of violent crimes, such as homicide and assault; and a dramatic reduction in the number of drug offenders.
“Since 1999, the prison population in New York has declined by almost 24 percent, from a high of 71,600 to approximately 54,600 incarcerated today.
“At the end of 1996, there were 24,085 drug offenders in custody. By comparison, on Dec. 31, 2012, that number reached a new low of 7,053, which represents a reduction of 71 percent.
“This is the lowest number of drug offenders since 1986, a majority of whom were serving their sentences in medium-security facilities and Shock Incarceration programs.”
Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci said that over the next 12 months, “we will have the beds available in the system to transfer those inmates from the four facilities and not impact the safety of staff, the inmate population or the public.
“No inmates will be released early due to the closing of a facility, and we will not have to seek any temporary, double-bunking variances from the State Commission of Correction. In fact, we have even reduced the number of double cells in our maximum-security facilities by 337 this year.”
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