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Cuomo eyes more NY prison closures as inmate population decline continues
EYE ON NY

Cuomo eyes more NY prison closures as inmate population decline continues

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Butler Correctional Facility 50

A photo of the exterior at Butler Correctional Facility in Wayne County. The prison closed in 2014.

As the prison population continues to decline, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is looking to close more New York correctional facilities

Cuomo, who has closed 17 prisons since becoming governor in 2011, included a proposal in his 2020-21 executive budget plan that would allow him to shutter more correctional facilities. He would be required to give state legislative leaders 90 days' notice of any closures. 

There isn't a number of correctional facilities listed in the proposal. Last year, state lawmakers agreed to give Cuomo the authority to close up to three prisons. He closed two — Lincoln Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison in New York City, and Livingston Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in western New York. 

Jason Conwall, a spokesman for Cuomo, said New York has one of the lowest crime rates in the country and the lowest imprisonment rate of any large state. 

"We have constantly said that prisons are not an economic development strategy and by right-sizing the system as the prison population drastically declines — 27% since 2008, and nearly 5,000 vacant beds today — we're already saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year," he said. 

Conwall added that the proposed budget would give Cuomo authority "to take strategic actions going forward, as the inmate population is expected to continue to decline." 

At the end of 2008, the prison population was 60,933. The following year, state lawmakers reformed the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The number of incarcerated individuals has declined over the last decade. 

As of Dec. 31, 2019, there were 44,279 inmates in the state prison system. 

The closure of 17 prisons has eliminated more than 6,650 beds and saved the state approximately $193 million annually, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The governor's office noted that the average annual cost to house one prisoner in New York is $69,000. 

However, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association — the union representing corrections officers in state prisons — opposes Cuomo's proposal. The labor group worries that it will lead to overcrowding in prisons and create a more dangerous situation for security personnel. 

Michael Powers, NYSCOPBA's president, said violence in prison is at an all-time high. According to DOCCS, there were 1,032 inmate-on-staff assaults and 1,232 inmate-on-inmate assaults in 2019. Of the 1,032 assaults on staff, 768 occurred in maximum-security prisons. The remaining 249 were reported in medium-security prisons. 

"The last thing we need is incarcerated individuals tightly crammed into prisons, creating nothing more than a powder keg of violence," Powers said. 

While Cuomo is hoping to close more prisons, a challenge for the state has been finding reuses for shuttered correctional facilities. Butler Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Wayne County, remains vacant after it closed in 2014. There have been some attempts to reuse prisons, but with limited success. 

After Cuomo closed seven prisons in 2011, the state established a $50 million economic transformation program to help communities affected by correctional facility closures. The state added $32 million to the program in 2014 when Butler and three other prisons closed. 

Cuomo's 2020-21 budget proposal would expand the program to allow any community affected by a prison closure since 2011 to seek funding for economic development projects. 

The state Legislature will begin holding hearings this week on Cuomo's budget plan. The governor and state legislators hope to have a new state budget finalized before the start of the fiscal year, which begins April 1. 

Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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