It's still not known how many prisons or which prisons would close if Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal is adopted, but Anthony Annucci — acting commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision — revealed some information about the plan at a legislative hearing Wednesday.
Annucci was asked about prison closures during the public protection budget hearing in Albany. Cuomo, who has closed 17 prisons since taking office in 2011, wants authority from state lawmakers to expedite the closure of more state prisons. Under the proposal, Cuomo could close prisons if he gives state legislative leaders at least 90 days' notice.
Assemblyman David Weprin, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Correction, inquired about how many prisons would be closed this year. Annucci said a number hasn't been specified.
"But in discussions with the state we've indicated 2,500 beds would be impacted," he continued. When Weprin asked if that could be as many as two or three prisons, Annucci responded, "That would be within the realm of possibility."
The main reason for prison closures is the declining population of incarcerated individuals. The prison population has fallen from 57,229 when Cuomo took office in 2011 to 43,881 as of Feb. 1. Annucci noted the number of inmates held in the state's 52 correctional facilities is at its lowest total since 1987.
This is the second year in a row Cuomo sought to close state prisons. He included a similar proposal in his executive budget amendments last year. While the state Legislature didn't include it in their one-house budget plans, the final state budget gave the governor authority to close up to three prisons.
Cuomo closed two prisons on Sept. 1: Lincoln Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison in New York City, and Livingston Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in western New York.
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At Wednesday's budget hearing, Annucci faced questions from Republican lawmakers about the new round of potential closures. Assemblyman Phil Palmesano criticized the "fast-tracking" of prison closures because he said it shows a "lack of respect for those individuals who have worked in those facilities."
"I really believe this 90-day push adds insult to injury," Palmesano, R-Corning, added.
Annucci explained that the challenge with following the one-year notification requirement in state law is that some employees think they can stop the prison closures by launching a public campaign. When the state announced a year in advance that four prisons would close in 2014, there were rallies held and efforts undertaken to try and save the facilities. But the state still closed the prisons.
While the closures affect employees, Annucci noted that they avoid layoffs with transfers to other correctional facilities or within state government.
Lawmakers also quizzed Annucci about "double-bunking," a practice used in medium-security facilities that the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, the union representing state corrections officers, blames for increased violence in prisons. There were 1,265 assaults on inmates and 1,033 assaults on staff in state prisons last year, according to DOCCS.
Annucci acknowledged that double-bunking is used, but he doesn't believe it's contributed to violence in prisons. He thinks other factors, including the presence of gangs in facilities, have led to more violence. He defended double-bunking by noting that inmates wouldn't be in that living situation for an extended period of time.
Cuomo's prison closure plan is part of his 2020-21 executive budget proposal being reviewed by the state Legislature. Lawmakers will finish hearings this month and work on developing their one-house budgets.
The governor and state legislative leaders hope to have a state budget agreement by April 1 — the first day of the 2020-21 fiscal year.
Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.