For the third budget cycle in a row, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to expedite the closure of more New York state prisons.
Cuomo's 2021-22 executive budget proposal includes legislation that would allow him to close correctional facilities as long as he notifies state legislative leaders at least 90 days before the closures. Under existing state law, there is a one-year notification requirement.
Anthony Annucci, the acting commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, testified at a state budget hearing Wednesday and briefly mentioned the governor's plan to shutter more state prisons.
"Based on the continued decline of the incarcerated population, we anticipate additional facility closures in the upcoming two fiscal years," he said.
The decreasing inmate population is one factor in the closures. Since Cuomo took office in 2011, he has closed 18 state prisons. Annucci told lawmakers that the facility closures have generated $292 million in savings.
As of Feb. 1, there are 33,376 incarcerated individuals in New York's 52 state prisons. The population has decreased by 54.1% since 1999 when there were 72,649 inmates in the prison system.
"It just makes sense to continue to have the ability to assess prison populations and find savings for taxpayers, and, notably, no layoffs would occur under this proposal," said Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget.
New York is in the midst of closing three more state prisons. It was announced in December that two medium-security facilities — Gowanda and Watertown correctional facilities — and the annex at Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison, would close in March. Annucci confirmed at the budget hearing that the prisons will close by March 31.
The plan to close additional prisons over the next two fiscal years — Annucci said they are looking to eliminate approximately 1,800 beds — led to questions from lawmakers at the budget hearing.
Assemblyman David Weprin, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Correction, asked Annucci about actions related to minimizing the economic impact. While there won't be layoffs, employees will be offered opportunities at other facilities or other positions within DOCCS. Annucci said human resources personnel will meet with employees to discuss their options.
Annucci added that the facilities will be maintained "in a fashion that they can be used" for another purpose. This has been a challenge for the state, which hasn't found many businesses or other organizations interested in the now-shuttered prisons.
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano criticized the proposed round of closures over a two-year period. He believes state lawmakers should reject attempts to expedite the closure of state prisons and instead follow the existing statute, which has a one-year notification requirement.
But he also panned the prison closures because of how they affect employees and their families.
"It's really adding insult to injury," he said. "No time for planning or preparation ... It's not enough time for a family to plan for moving, to relocate for schools and homes. It's just not appropriate, especially in this era of COVID."
Michael Powers, who serves as president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, told The Citizen on Thursday that the union is concerned about transferring employees and inmates during the pandemic.
NYSCOPBA, which represents state corrections officers, has criticized the prison closures that were announced in December. Powers argued that any further prison closures should be delayed.
"Let's pump the breaks on these closures for a bit and ride it out and see just what's going to come of this potential issue moving forward with the spread of COVID," he said. "To me, you're just increasing the odds of spreading it."
At the budget hearing, Annucci said there hasn't been a final decision on which facilities will close. While the annex at Clinton is a maximum-security prison, most of the prisons Cuomo has closed are medium-security facilities.
He noted there are "a lot of different factors that we look at." DOCCS has previously said they review several factors, including infrastructure and the programs offered at prisons.
"It's the toughest decision to do to close a correctional facility," Annucci said. "I do not underestimate the impact on the staff or the surrounding communities."
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.