After nearly 40 years of unprecedented growth, our nation's expanding prison population has finally begun to sputter. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010 marked the first year since 1972 in which, taken together, state and federal correctional populations declined slightly – a trend that continued in 2011.
This modest reduction reflects revisions to draconian drug laws (particularly in New York and Florida), curtailing re-incarceration for technical parole violators, and the burgeoning implementation of "good time" early-release credits. As a result, 15 states have closed 35 adult correctional facilities over the last two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, while additional closures are pending in 2013.
Although prison closures are widely celebrated by prisoners and criminal justice reform activists alike, the implementation of such plans is rarely straightforward and often encounters opposition from local communities, prison guard unions and lawmakers in the districts where facilities are slated to close. If achieved, prison closures are usually piecemeal and result in the transfer of prisoners to other facilities, not additional releases. Similarly, prison employees displaced by closures are often absorbed by other facilities, not fired. The predictable tumult resulting from actual and proposed prison closures reflects the competing and contradictory interests held by various stakeholders involved in the process.
Despite signaling a hopeful interruption in the business-as-usual crime and punishment mania that has characterized U.S. penal policy for the past half-century, it's possible to argue that the increasing number of prison closures represents just as much an experiment in budget-cutting in the short term as it does in durable criminal justice reform over the long term.
Since prison closures are not jurisdictionally uniform, it's worth exploring the constellation of stakeholder priorities and policy issues on a state-by-state basis. While each jurisdiction handles prison closures differently, we begin with California because it provides textbook insight into the calculus involved in assessing and actualizing prison closures.
Since at least 2011, California has arguably been at the epicenter of contemporary (albeit involuntary) prison reform. As a result of the state's court-ordered prison population reduction, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has proposed closing the 3,900-bed California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco.
"[CRC is] the least efficient, most expensive, one of our least safe, oldest prisons, and it's appropriate at this time to begin to think about moving out of those facilities that are so expensive to run," stated then-CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate.
Plans to shutter the facility began several years ago when, on May 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling by a three-judge panel requiring the State of California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years to alleviate severe overcrowding that resulted in constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].
At the time, CDCR facilities were operating at around 180 percent capacity, on average. In response the California legislature and Governor Jerry Brown enacted two laws – AB 109 and AB 117 (together known as the Public Safety Realignment initiative) – aimed at significantly reducing the number of state prisoners. Implemented in late 2011, Realignment transfers "new non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders" from state prisons to county-level facilities, and shifts most parolees from state to county supervision.
California prison officials have also proposed canceling the construction of several reentry facilities, including the Northern California Reentry Facility in San Joaquin County, Estrella Facility in Paso Robles and the Stark Facility in Chino.
The Public Policy Institute of California estimated that Realignment has been responsible for a 30,000-prisoner reduction in the CDCR's population.
While California's prison population has dropped, resulting in a reduction in needed bed space and plans to close the CRC, the state's jail population has risen substantially. The average daily population in California jails has increased by at least 12 percent – roughly equivalent to 9,000 prisoners – since Realignment was implemented, reversing a gradual reduction. That is, one-third of the state's prison population reduction has been effectively "absorbed" by county jails, resulting in a shifting of the overcrowding problem from the state to the county level.
In response to the CDCR's proposal to shut down the CRC, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the union that represents state prison workers, warned the closure would negatively impact the local economy because the prison has a payroll of over $76 million, which would disappear if the facility was decommissioned.
The CRC is projected to close by June 2016.
A declining prison population has led Colorado officials to close several facilities; by the end of 2012, the state had 2,109 vacant prison beds.
The Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) closed the 500-bed Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in March 2012, resulting in an estimated $6.3 million in annual savings. State lawmakers had tried to keep the prison open but only managed to postpone its closure for six months.
"It's been a huge [loss] for both the community and businesses," said Bent County Commissioner Lynden Gill.
"We continue to work with Bent County officials and agencies in Washington to help find a new purpose for the Fort Lyon prison facility," Governor John Hickenlooper stated. "It's a wonderful campus and could be put to great use by a host of different federal agencies or other businesses."
State lawmakers attempted to reopen Fort Lyon earlier this year, without success. Governor Hickenlooper proposed converting the former prison into a treatment center for the homeless, and that measure eventually passed the legislature in May 2013 after being added to a bill related to pay and work hours for DOC employees. The state plans to bus homeless people to the former prison, where they will receive treatment services – at a cost of $2.78 million during the first year of the program.
"Is this actually going to help homelessness? I don't think so," said state Senator David Balmer. "You can't just bus people some place they've never been and think it's going to be OK." The plan will create jobs and provide revenue for the local economy, though.
Meanwhile, on November 1, 2012, the state closed the Colorado State Penitentiary II (CSP II), also known as Centennial South. The prison, which was financed with $208 million in "certificates of participation," opened in September 2010 following strong lobbying by DOC officials who claimed they needed it to house "a growing population of violent prisoners." That growing population never materialized, and the 948-bed facility, composed entirely of solitary confinement cells, sat two-thirds empty until the state decided to shut it down.
"The bottom line is we never needed that prison to begin with," said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
The prisoners held at CSP II were moved to other facilities, and no employees lost their jobs. "The plan we have ... allows us to reassign the staff, 213 employees, that are in CSP II funding positions, working the housing units," said then-Colorado DOC director Tom Clements. "It allows us to reassign those individuals to other positions in the Fremont County Correctional Complex."
The closure of CSP II was estimated to save the state around $13 million annually beginning in the current fiscal year.
In 2012, Colorado officials hired CNA, a nonprofit research organization, to study the state's prison system. CNA's report is due on June 30, 2013, and is expected to recommend additional prison closures – which has residents and officials in prison towns worried.
"With the loss of jobs in natural gas development and the closure of the New Elk Mine, this is about our last industry," said Richard Harlan, a former warden at the state's Trinidad Correctional Facility. "This is absolutely critical. I don't know what the numbers are now, but when I retired about 75 percent of our staff lived in Trinidad and Las Animas County. It was a huge number of jobs, a lot of families and there's no other opportunity. It's absolutely critical that we maintain and keep this [prison open]."
"The prisons are a very critical part of our economy," added Cañon City Mayor Tony Greer. Cañon City is home to seven state correctional facilities.
"Unfortunately, a lot of those smaller communities were sold a bill of goods about [how] this is going to be good for your community – and it did create an economic boom for them," noted Colorado State Public Defender Douglas Wilson. "But now with the [prison] populations going down, I think the legislature's going to have to make some tough decisions about if they close, and if so, where do they close the prisons."
After Connecticut implemented a number of policy changes – including risk-reduction credits for prisoners, a new home confinement program for DUI offenders, changes involving the age at which juveniles can be charged as adults and a wide array of re-entry services – the state's prison population dropped from 19,716 in 2009 to 16,586 in July 2012 – a 15.8% decline.
Consequently, the Connecticut DOC closed the 878-bed J.B. Gates Correctional Institution as of June 1, 2011, and the 603-bed Bergin Correctional Institution on August 12, 2011. The state also considered closing the Enfield Correctional Institution, but plans to decommission that facility were never implemented.
Two unions that represent state prison employees, AFSCME locals 1565 and 387, had filed suit in Hartford Superior Court in August 2011, requesting an injunction to stop the DOC from closing the Bergin facility.
"Of immediate concern is the increased danger to correctional officers due to the sudden and significant increase in the inmate population of the receiving prisons and/or overcrowding in the receiving prisons," the lawsuit stated.
On February 17, 2012, the superior court issued a ruling which found that the union's claims seeking to enjoin the closure of Bergin were moot, as the facility had closed before the suit was filed. The court noted that prison employees were not laid off as a result of the closure and that the state's prison population had continued to drop; thus, the union's claims regarding the effects of overcrowding and increased danger to prison employees were also mooted. The lawsuit was therefore dismissed. [See: 1565 387 AFSCME v. Arnone, Hartford Superior Court (CT), Case No. HHDCV116024261].
While Florida has closed 15 correctional facilities since 2011, some county officials are worried about Governor Rick Scott's idea to shift about 5,600 prisoners from state prisons to local jails, along the lines of California's Realignment initiative. The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) claims that the proposal will reduce operating costs and save the state around $47.7 million a year.
However, according to an analysis by the Association of Florida Counties, the proposal is projected to cost the counties $100 million annually. This does not include increased costs for prisoner medical care, staffing and renovations to county jails that may not be able to accommodate higher-security level offenders serving long sentences.
Overcrowding in jails is already a problem in Florida, as 20 percent of county jails are currently full or over their design capacity, according to the Association of Counties. Broward County and Palm Beach County are both particularly worried about the proposal to shift state prisoners to local facilities because they neither have the space needed to house state prisoners nor the funds to build new jails.
In 2011, the state closed five correctional facilities: Brevard Correctional Institution (CI), Hendry CI, the Tallahassee Road Prison, and the Lowell and Sumter boot camps. The FDOC's 2012 proposed prison closures included Broward CI in Ft. Lauderdale, Demilly CI in Polk City, Gainesville CI in Alachua County, Hillsborough CI in Riverview, Indian River CI in Vero Beach, Jefferson CI in Monticello and New River CI in Raiford, plus the River Junction Work Camp, Caryville Work Camp, Hendry Work Camp and Levy Forestry Camp.
"Declining prison admissions has led to a surplus of prison beds, allowing us to pare down our budget shortfall by consolidating and closing our older, less efficient facilities. We are committed to placing as many affected staff as possible in vacant positions for which they are qualified," remarked then-FDOC Secretary Ken Tucker.
On January 19, 2012, the Jefferson County Board passed a resolution opposing the closure of the 1,200-bed Jefferson CI, noting that the prison was the county's largest local employer, supplying 177 job positions.
"The loss of jobs and the impact on the local economy and community will be substantial, estimated to have a $19 million impact on local economic activity and uprooting longtime residents who must move elsewhere to find new jobs," the resolution stated.
The resolution was applauded by the Teamsters, which represents around 20,000 FDOC employees. "Rural Florida has suffered enough in this recession, and the last thing the state should do is to cause more pain by rushing to close its correctional facilities," said Teamsters Local 2011 Acting President Ken Wood.
Democratic state lawmakers criticized the proposed prison closures, too, citing the resulting loss of jobs. "I am saddened and disappointed with Gov. Rick Scott's decision to close several correctional institutions that are economically vital to our rural communities," said state Rep. Alan Williams.
The Florida legislature, during budget negotiations with the governor's office, eventually decided to keep Jefferson CI open at a cost of $10.2 million to the state. The other six prisons and four work camps slated for closure in 2012 were shuttered, with prisoners at those facilities being transferred to other locations.
Four prisoners and two volunteers at Hillsborough CI, a 289-bed faith- and character-based women's prison, had filed a lawsuit in state court in an attempt to stop the facility from closing, without success. Circuit Court Judge Terry P. Lewis issued a ruling in February 2012 that found the FDOC's closure of the prison did not violate state law.
In February 2012, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced that the state was closing Tamms supermax, a facility where prisoners were housed in solitary confinement cells. [See: PLN, April 2013, p.28]. The prison's January 4, 2013 closure was celebrated by prisoners, their family members and human rights advocates.
"We are going through stages of relief, disbelief, celebration and reflection," stated a message posted online by Tamms Year Ten, an advocacy group that has worked for years to end solitary confinement and other abuses at the prison.
The Illinois Department of Corrections also announced plans to close the Dwight Correctional Center (one of the state's three prisons for women), the Joliet and Murphysboro Youth Centers, and three adult transitional centers. The closures are expected to save the state up to $100 million annually.
The John Howard Association (JHA), a prison watchdog group, expressed concerns about closing Dwight and moving more than 1,000 women prisoners to the already overcrowded Decatur Correctional Center. JHA director John Maki noted the facility had made improvements and implemented programs that benefited prisoners. "If Dwight closes, Illinois risks losing the significant investment we have made in creating this rehabilitative environment that protects public safety," he said.
Other critics of the prison closures included AFSCME, the union that represents state prison employees. One AFSCME official said of the closures, "it will worsen tensions in an already volatile environment.... It's the perfect example of how one closure has a dangerous domino effect statewide." However, family members of prisoners housed at Tamms held marches and rallies in support of shutting down the supermax prison.
State lawmakers stymied efforts to close Tamms and the other facilities, voting to restore funding to keep them open. "This is an economic disaster for those communities affected by closures," remarked state Rep. Keith Mackinaw. Unconvinced, Governor Quinn vetoed the budget appropriation on June 30, 2012.
AFSCME Council 31 then filed a lawsuit to prevent the prison closures, and initially obtained a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in September 2012. The union claimed that closing Tamms would "destabilize the entire prison system, worsen dangerous overcrowding and put the safety of employees, inmates, youth and the public at risk." The circuit court rejected a motion to intervene filed by the Uptown People's Law Center, which represented seven Tamms prisoners who wanted the lawsuit dismissed and the prison closed. The Fifth District Appellate Court upheld the lower court's injunction in November 2012.
On December 19, 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the preliminary injunction, allowing the closures of Tamms, Dwight Correctional Center, the two juvenile facilities and three transitional centers to go forward. "Our state is facing unprecedented financial pressures and closing these facilities is one part of the long-term solution," Governor Quinn said in a press release.
Most of the prisoners housed at Tamms were sent to the Pontiac Correctional Center, while almost all Tamms employees were shifted to other facilities. "There were 264 employees who accepted other positions within DOC, one resigned, seven accepted vacancies at other state agencies and twenty accepted layoff," said prison spokesperson Stacey Solano.
The Dwight women's prison closed on March 29, 2013, with almost 350 employees being transferred to positions at other facilities. It was the town's second-largest employer. Male prisoners at the Logan Correctional Center were sent to another prison to make room for the women from Dwight; Logan eventually will be converted to a maximum- and medium-security women's facility. Illinois has offered to sell the now-vacant Tamms supermax to the federal government.
The closure of Tamms and Dwight has not helped reduce Illinois' overcrowded prison system, which, as of March 2013, held 49,100 prisoners in facilities with a design capacity of 32,100. In February 2013, the State Journal-Register reported that six Illinois prisons, including the Graham Correctional Center, were planning to house prisoners in their gyms due to overcrowding. "The gymnasiums in those facilities will be temporarily set up as dormitory units for minimum-security inmates," said Solano.
"Cramming hundreds more inmates into gyms is less secure for employees and degrading for inmates," AFSCME noted in a statement. The John Howard Association also criticized the move.
Iowa officials are closing the Clinical Care Unit (CCU) at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, which is only 10 years old. The state spent $26 million to construct the 200-bed mental health facility but is now "mothballing" it in preparation for the opening of a new $117 million, 800-bed maximum-security prison. The new prison, expected to open in January 2014, will be located approximately one mile from the CCU.
The closure plan was revealed as part of Governor Terry Branstad's budget proposal in January 2013, and involves the relocation of 960 prisoners. Most of those prisoners – 660 – will move to the new facility after it opens, while the remaining 300 will be transferred to other prisons. The state Senate approved the closure of the CCU in May 2013 by passing a spending package that did not include funding to keep the facility open.
Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta remarked that the transfer of CCU prisoners to mental health units at other prisons could begin early next year. He said no employees would lose their jobs, as they would be moved to the new maximum-security facility. This was important, because the union that represents state prison workers had cited potential job losses as a reason to avoid prison closures.
Some state lawmakers and public employee union members, including AFSCME Council 61, had strongly opposed efforts to shut down the CCU. The state intends to eventually close the entire Iowa State Penitentiary.
Governor Branstad also wanted to close the minimum-security 88-bed Luster Heights Prison Camp, but the legislature voted to keep it open following opposition from prison staff and local officials. Prisoners at Luster Heights are used for work projects in the nearby community and are paid $5.00 for up to ten hours of labor, and the loss of the prison work force would be problematic.
"I don't think you can replace them for five dollars per day. We get a lot of work out of them for the amount of money spent," said City of McGregor Waste Water Treatment Plant Director Nathan Hird. "It makes no sense to close an efficient, successful facility so funds can be diverted to a more expensive one," added Larry Schellhammer, who chairs the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors.
The Otter Creek Correctional Center in Wheelwright, operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest for-profit prison company, closed in June 2012 after Kentucky declined to renew its contract to house state prisoners at the facility. County officials have said they're still feeling the effects of the job losses. Wheelwright is a small mountain town with a population of 700, and nearly a quarter of its residents were left unemployed due to the prison closure.
"It has affected everybody," said Mayor Andy Akers. "It has affected not just our town but the whole area. You've got people working up there that live here, plus they trade here at the stores and restaurants."
The Otter Creek prison was the site of a 2009 sex scandal involving CCA employees; as a result, the states of Hawaii and Kentucky removed their female prisoners, and male prisoners from the Kentucky DOC were transferred to the facility. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.40]. Kentucky subsequently canceled its $21 million contract with CCA due to budget cuts and efforts to reduce the state's prison population.
"CCA will continue to market Otter Creek to potential government partners with the hope of reopening the facility," said company spokesman Steve Owen.
Akers said he hoped the prison would reopen soon. "We're a small town and we have no other business or nothing up here. We've got one little gas station," he noted.
In September 2012, employees at the C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center in DeQuincy, Louisiana abruptly learned they were going to lose their jobs. The 54-year-old prison was slated for closure two months later, and shut down on November 1, 2012. Most of the 942 prisoners were sent to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Closing Phelps will save an estimated $2.6 million in fiscal year 2012 and $11.85 million in fiscal years 2013-2014, according to Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc.
DeQuincy city officials weren't happy about the prison closure. "You're talking 320 jobs, people's livelihoods, what it means, the income it brings to the town through taxes," said Mayor Lawrence Henagan. "People come up and visit the inmates, they buy things in town."
Louisiana had previously closed the 498-bed Forcht-Wade Correctional Center and 300-bed J. Levy Dabadie Correctional Center in July 2012. The closures were due to budget cuts; some of the prisoners were transferred to parish jails, where it is less expensive to house them. The state estimates $5.7 million in first-year savings from closing the Forcht-Wade and Dabadie facilities, which will be used as emergency evacuation centers in case of natural disasters such as hurricanes.
"We're going to be much more efficient in providing the same level of service, but at substantially less cost," said LeBlanc. "Unfortunately, it does impact our employees." Several hundred prison workers were laid off due to the closures.
Legislators had tried to stop the Dabadie facility from closing by approving more than $8 million in funding to keep it open; however, Governor Bobby Jindal killed the appropriation with a line-item veto.
"How can the governor line-item veto Dabadie, which really almost pays for itself and really hurts central Louisiana?" asked state Rep. Chris Hazel. "It's really going to hurt the folks around here."
Public employee union members and several state lawmakers expressed concern after Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte decided in January 2013 to close a pre-release center. The local AFSCME chapter, which represents prison employees, asked to delay the closing of the Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell.
On February 4, 2013, the legislative Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held a hearing on plans to shut down the pre-release center and lawmakers questioned whether closing the facility was the best decision, citing potential adverse effects on both prisoners and residents in Hallowell.
State Senator Stan Gerzofsky said closing the Central Maine Pre-Release Center would hurt local communities that rely on prison labor from the facility. "I'm concerned when the prisoners go, so does some of our help," added state Rep. Tim Marks.
"I hope in the coming weeks and months we can build a coalition to put a stop to this and find a better solution," said Jim Durkin, a union representative, at a public forum held two days after the legislative hearing.
Despite opposition, the facility closed in April 2013 with 58 prisoners being moved to state prisons or the Kennebec County Jail. The 21 employees at the pre-release center were transferred to job positions at other facilities.
In January 2012, the 145-year-old Nevada State Prison was taken out of service. State officials said bringing the aging facility up to code would have cost almost $30 million, while moving prisoners to newer and more efficient prisons is expected to save half that amount over Nevada's two-year budget cycle.
According to a DOC spokesperson, jobs were found for all of the state workers affected by the closure; most were transferred to other prisons and several found jobs with different state agencies. Avoiding laying off the facility's 140 employees had been the main objective when lawmakers agreed in 2011 to close the prison. Most of the 700 prisoners at the facility were sent to the High Desert State Prison.
The state's execution chamber, which is located at the Nevada State Prison, will be maintained for several years before being moved to another facility. The Nevada State Prison was officially decommissioned in May 2012; state officials are considering turning it into a museum.
In January 2013, as part of his executive budget proposal, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recommended closing two women's prisons due to "inefficient" operations, plus four juvenile facilities.
He noted that the state was spending close to $70,000 per prisoner at the Beacon Correctional Facility in Dutchess County and over $74,000 per prisoner at the Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan. He added that the target cost for efficient prison operations should be closer to $34,000 per prisoner.
"It is not right, we can't afford it," Governor Cuomo said. "If we are serious about balancing the budget, let's run government the way it should be run. We should close these two facilities."
Shutting Beacon and Bayview would eliminate 432 beds from the state's prison system and result in estimated savings of $18.7 million through 2014, with an additional $62 million being realized the following year. The latter savings include projected proceeds from selling the Bayview facility, which has been vacant since the prison was evacuated in advance of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
"The governor's announcement to close two state prisons, including one in Beacon, and the closure of the juvenile justice center in Red Hook, is, of course, a concern as we wait to learn what will happen to our local residents employed at those facilities, how their transitions will take place and how our local communities will be impacted," said Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro.
"The shuttering of women's prisons is positive and long overdue," added Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, which advocates for criminal justice reform. "However, the Correctional Association is concerned that the closures of Beacon and Bayview may eliminate some of the most effective opportunities for incarcerated women to maintain family ties and prepare for a successful reentry – two key components in reducing recidivism over time."
Donn Rowe, president of the union that represents state prison employees, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, also expressed concerns about the governor's prison closure proposal. "By once again jamming more inmates into fewer locations, the state will drive up the inmate-to-officer ratio and increase the risk of violent incidents inside correctional facilities," he said. "Coupled with the state's consistent inability to sufficiently staff state facilities, the proposals recently introduced will increase the level of danger for our members."
In early 2013 the union launched a $250,000-plus media campaign, including statewide radio spots, direct mail and newspaper ads to protest the proposed prison closures. Rowe said that closing Beacon and Bayview would force more prison employees out of their jobs or require them to work at other facilities far from their families. However, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said no prison staff members would be laid off.
As New York's prison population shrinks and facilities are closed, some advocates for ex-offenders want to use vacant prisons for reentry programs. Greenhope Services for Women, Inc., an organization that works with prisoners at Bayview, hopes to turn the empty facility into a center for job training, educational resources and housing for former prisoners. The Osbourne Association wants to transform the former Fulton Correctional Facility, which is currently vacant, into a reentry center.
New York closed seven prisons, camps or work release centers in 2011, including Fulton, the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, Mid-Orange Correctional Facility and Oneida Correctional Facility. Those closures affected around 2,600 prisoners, who were moved to other state prisons, and 1,706 employees. According to prison officials, 1,427 of the affected employees transferred to positions at other correctional facilities, 22 went to different state agencies, 95 retired and 131 were fired.
"An incarceration program is not an employment program," Governor Cuomo said during his 2011 State of the State Address. "If people need jobs, let's get people jobs. Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs. Don't put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs. That's not what this state is all about."
According to an April 2013 news report, the Beacon and Bayview facilities will close as part of the approved state budget. Assemblyman Frank Skartados, who represents the district where Beacon is located, secured $6 million in state funding to re-purpose the prison after it shuts down in order to reduce the economic impact on the local community.
In January 2013, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett announced plans to cut the state's corrections budget by closing two prisons while opening a new facility.
The plan includes closing State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson and SCI Greensburg, which is expected to save the state $23 million in 2014 and more in subsequent years. Most of the 2,400 prisoners at those two facilities will be transferred to a new prison – SCI Benner in Centre County, which has 2,000 beds. Additionally, the state decided not to reopen SCI-Waynesburg, which has been vacant since 2003.
"This is really an important step for the administration and the next step in our corrections reform," said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. However, residents in the towns affected by the prison closures didn't see it that way.
"It's going to hurt the restaurants, the hardware store, every business place here is going to be affected," said Cresson Mayor Partick Mulhern. "Five hundred employees in one fell swoop – that's an awful lot."
Bill Weimer, a spokesperson for the town of Greensburg, said that "losing the prison jobs will cost the township $20,000 in local services tax revenue." He added that the township sewer authority will "lose $425,000 of its $7 million yearly budget" due to the prison closure.
Employees at SCI Greensburg – who were blindsided by the decision to close the facility – protested at the state capital, and the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the state's justification for shuttering the two prisons. Both SCI Cresson and SCI Greensburg are scheduled to close by June 30, 2013.
Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association president Roy Pinto questioned the need to decommission the two facilities, stating, "If these prisons are closed, the only thing certain is it will hurt thousands of families and devastate the local economies in those areas."
"I don't know if you can put a dollar bill on the loss of a prison to a community," noted state Senator John Wozniak. "I look at it as taking a factory out, one that employs 500 people, and then there is the impact of the vendors."
Of the 500 staff at SCI Cresson, most will transfer to positions at other facilities with less than 50 retiring or resigning. The closures reflect a declining state prison population, according to Corrections Secretary Wetzel, who said the state would try to sell the SCI Cresson and SCI Greensburg properties.
In mid-2011, Texas lawmakers voted to close the Central Unit prison in Sugar Land. Nearly 1,000 prisoners were relocated by August 2011 when the facility shut down – the state's first prison closure in 166 years. State officials estimated that closing the facility, formerly known as the Imperial Unit, could save as much as $25 million annually, mostly in fixed costs such as staffing and utilities.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) said moving the prisoners was easy enough due to excess bed space in the state's prison system. But it took more time to discontinue other operations at the Central Unit, which served as a regional warehouse and distribution point for more than two dozen correctional facilities in the area.
Additionally, since the prison – a former sugar cane plantation – had several hundred acres of crops, prisoners and guards had to be brought in from another unit to temporarily continue the farming operations. Prisoners were still being used to farm at the Central Unit in January 2013.
"I thought it was closed, long gone," said state Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "Why's it taken the state this long to close Central?" The prison is expected to completely close by July 2013 and the property will then be sold.
The Texas legislature's recently-proposed budget calls for new efficiencies in the state's penal system, including additional prison closures. The TDCJ has over 12,000 vacant beds and lawmakers want to cut costs by shutting down facilities that are no longer needed. Two privately-operated prisons, the 2,200-bed Dawson State Jail and 2,100-bed Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility, both run by Corrections Corporation of America, were designated for the budgetary chopping block.
The union that represents the state's prison employees did not oppose the closures, likely because the two facilities are privately operated. AFSCME local president Lance Lowry even suggested closing a third CCA-run state jail, citing poor management.
While there was consensus among lawmakers to close Dawson, which was expensive to operate and had recently experienced several high-profile deaths, some legislators were hesitant to shut down Mineral Wells due to the impact on the local economy – despite the fact that the facility has been repeatedly cited for contract violations and security problems.
In May 2013, the state House and Senate agreed to let the Texas Board of Criminal Justice decide which two facilities would be closed, and $97 million was removed from the state budget in anticipation of the closures. Some of those savings will be used to fund pay raises for public employees, including state prison guards.
BOP Bucks the Trend
There have been no recent prison closures in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) – largely due to the continued increase in the federal prison population. While the state prison population nationwide decreased from 1.407 million in 2009 to 1.381 million at year-end 2011 (a 1.7% reduction), the BOP's population rose from 208,118 to 216,362 – an almost 4% increase – over the same period of time.
Much of that growth can be attributed to more federal prosecutions for immigration-related offenses, particularly along the southern U.S. border. As a result there has been a substantial increase in the number of Hispanics sent to federal prisons. [See: PLN, May 2012, p.26].
Consequently, a fiscal year 2013 federal appropriations bill included $25.8 million to fund up to 1,600 new Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prison beds to house immigrant prisoners; the new beds would be contracted to a private prison company. The BOP issued a bid solicitation for up to 1,600 CAR beds in August 2012. On September 10, 2012, a coalition of more than 90 organizations sent a joint letter to members of Congress urging them to reject the appropriation for the CAR beds.
"The BOP's request for additional funding to incarcerate immigrants is the direct result of a prosecution program known as Operation Streamline. Prior to Operation Streamline, which launched in 2005, the majority of immigrants apprehended after entering the United States without documentation were deported through immigration procedures," the joint letter noted. "Under Operation Streamline, immigrants apprehended crossing the border without permission are instead referred for federal criminal prosecution."
Although several private prison companies responded to the BOP's bid solicitation, the CAR contract has not yet been awarded because funding was not appropriated due to the failure of Congress to pass the federal budget, resulting in the sequester and budget reductions.
Prison closures unsurprisingly follow a fairly typical pattern. When the closing of a prison is announced – usually due to budget cuts – there are often protests by prison employees and the unions that represent them, sometimes resulting in lawsuits. Local officials and residents voice concerns about job losses and the loss of low-cost labor provided by prison work crews. State lawmakers are sometimes swayed by opposition from the unions, prison employees and local communities, and hearings are held. If the prison closure proceeds, few staff members actually lose their jobs; rather, they are usually transferred to other prisons. Similarly, prisoners are simply moved to other facilities.
Thus, if prison closures are to have a broad and enduring impact, advocates of carceral reform must confront the difference between means and ends, tactic and strategy. Prison closures do not always result in prison population reductions, and this is precisely the paradox of advocating for change. In other words, closing a prison, although seemingly auspicious, is not an adequate substitute for decreasing correctional populations or for reducing our nation's reliance on the ideology of incarceration – particularly for those convicted of minor offenses.
Thoreau once said that while there are thousands hacking at the branches of injustice, only a few dare strike at the root. While prisons represent the branches, the political, social and economic policies that underpin our justice system are at the root of the problem.
Criminal justice activists and prisoners' rights advocates must not let what they may perceive as momentary victories, in the form of prison closures, perpetuate the very practices of mass incarceration they critique. That is, while a small number of correctional facilities have closed, the U.S. still incarcerates around 2.2 million people in jails and state and federal prisons – far more than any other nation. Additionally, some states are building more prisons due to their expanding prison populations and the federal prison system continues to grow. In October 2012, the State of Illinois sold its maximum-security Thomson Correctional Center, which never fully opened due to budget problems, to the BOP for $165 million. The 1,600-bed facility will now be used to house federal rather than state prisoners.
The recent modest decline in the overall U.S. prison population over the past two years presents us with a moment to think before we act; it forces us to wrestle with the contradictions endemic to modern penal reform. Prison closures can beget openings, and openings can beget opportunities – opportunities to confront and challenge our collective understanding of why, who and how we punish, and by what means we can end our reliance on mass incarceration and effect lasting criminal justice reform.
Sources: "On the Chopping Block 2012: State Prison Closings" by The Sentencing Project (Dec. 2012), Bureau of Justice Statistics, New York Times, CBS-Sacramento, Correctional News, Truthout, Gotham Gazette, Wall Street Journal, American-Statesman, Colorado Public News, Post Gazette, CorrectionsOne, Pittsburg Tribune Review, The Ithaca Journal, Illinois State Journal Register, Times Union, NPR, Southern Springfield Bureau, Maine Press Herald, Huffington Post, Forbes, WGEM, KGWN TV, Marion Star, NECN, Las Vegas Review Journal, GoErie, Florida Today, WKYT, MSNBC, Colorado Connection, www.pe.com, http://losangeles.cbslocal.com, www.northescambia.com, www.teamster.org, www.sunshineslate.com, www.pantagraph.com, www.sj-r.com, www.suntimes.com, www.thesouthern.com, www.foxnews.com, Associated Press, www.solitarywatch.com, www.capitolfax.com, New York Daily News, www.onlinesentinel.com, www.legislativegazette.com, Des Moines Register, www.kcrg.com, www.tribune-democrat.com, www.tampabay.com, www.kplctv.com, www.ctnewsjunkie.com, www.ctmirror.org, www.kunc.org
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