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New York Prisons Avoid Budget Axe

by David M. Reutter

With the State of New York having 5,000 empty prison beds and a large budget deficit, it would seem the logical decision would be to save taxpayer dollars by closing some prisons. That, however, is not the choice of New York’s elected officials.

Rather than shut down four facilities, state authorities spent $34 million to keep them operating. The rationale for this apparently foolhardy approach is rooted in political clout and the need to continue propping up failed rural economies that have come to rely on the prisons for jobs and revenue.

Three facilities in northern New York near the Canadian border exemplify the waste of public tax dollars. In a population count taken on December 31, 2009, a prison in Lyon Mountain had 91 employees and 135 prisoners; the Ogdensburg Correctional Facility (OCF) had 287 employees and 474 prisoners; and the Red Creek minimum security complex had 67 employees and 71 prisoners.

Since 1999, New York’s crime rate has declined and nonviolent offenders are spending less time in prison. The state’s prisons hold 13,000 fewer prisoners than they did a decade ago, and it is expected that the population will decrease by another thousand by 2011. New York’s prison population is currently about 28,240.

Before he was forced to resign in March 2008 due to a prostitution scandal, former Governor Eliot Spitzer planned to close four state prisons. That proposal was scuttled when he stepped down, resulting in legislators coughing up $34 million to keep the facilities open.

Until recently, New York prisoners have been counted as residents of local communities when legislative maps are drawn; thus, they have been unwilling pawns in helping politicians protect their legislative districts. Prisons have also been the steam engine that drives rural economies by providing thousands of jobs.

State Senator Darrell J. Aubertine intends to protect this political prison turf, and does not want Governor David A. Paterson to close any of the four prisons. One of those facilities, OCF, is located within Senator Aubertine’s district.

“The devastating negative economic impact to these communities will outweigh any proposed savings,” Aubertine said of the proposed closures.

Should the prisons close, local towns would lose employees whose families go to local schools, pay local taxes and otherwise spend money at local business, but few if any prison employees would actually lose their jobs. They would simply transfer to positions at other facilities that become available through attrition.

With 547 employees overseeing 851 prisoners at the four facilities originally slated for closure – a staffing ratio of 1 to 1.5 – budgetary realities may ultimately outweigh the prison system’s clout.

For now, though, the four New York prisons remain open, and Governor Paterson and two gubernatorial candidates have pledged not to close them in the immediate future. As of August 30, 2010, the prisoner population at OCF had dwindled to 313. “We have vacancies all over the state,” acknowledged Linda M. Foglia, a Department of Correctional Services spokesperson.

Apparently, however, there are no vacancies among politically opportunistic New York elected officials.

Sources: New York Times,

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