ALBANY — The administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo has decided to shut three upstate prisons as the state's fiscal crisis deepens and the population of inmates wanes.
State officials confirmed the Clinton Correctional Facility Annex in Dannemora, Gowanda in Western New York and Watertown Correctional Facility in Jefferson County will all be closed March 30.
More than 900 members of the New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association, the union for corrections officers, will be displaced, said Michael Powers, the NYSCOPBA president.
"We're hoping for no layoffs," Powers said, adding: "Regardless of the executive budget that came out earlier, to now drop this just before Christmas, and to ruin our members holiday in a terrible year with COVID, is disingenuous, disrespectful and inconsiderate."
The closures are expected to eliminate 2,750 beds in the prison system while resulting in an estimated $89 million per year in savings for the state, according to Thomas Mailey, spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
The current statewide inmate population now stands at 34,842, down from 57,229 one year ago, for a reduction of 39 percent, he noted.
"That's why DOCCS carefully reviewed the operations at its correctional facilities and identified Watertown and Gowanda Correctional Facilities and the Clinton Annex for closure," Mailey said.
The impacted employees will receive "priority placement" through job transfers with DOCCS or at other state agencies, Mailey said. The prison system will work with the state Office of General Services for possible reuse of the properties after they are decommissioned as prisons.
Gowanda and Watertown are medium security prisons, while Clinton Annex is classified as maximum security.
Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, a former corrections officer, expressed deep disappointment with the move to shut Clinton Annex. "This is a kick in the gut to the town of Dannemora and to Clinton County during the Christmas season," Jones said.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, urged Cuomo to reverse the decision to close Clinton Annex and the Watertown prison, saying keeping the prisons allow authorities to keep inmates distant from one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The timing of this announcement could not be worse right before the holidays and as crime rates in the state are on the rise and COVID-19 continues to spread throughout our prisons," Stefanik said.
Another upstate lawmaker, state Senator-Elect Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, called the move to shut Clinton Annex "a big blow to the North Country."
Powers said the shutting of Clinton Annex will impact about 190 NYSCOPBA-represented employees and an additional 40 civilian workers at the prison.
Despite the pandemic-restrictions on inmate movements within prisons, Powers said there has been no reduction in violent incidents caused by inmates.
"Calling for additional closures will only serve to condense the prison population within a decreasing number of facilities, further jeopardizing the safety of NYSCOPBA members and the inmate population as a whole,” Powers said.
He also said the communities that surround prisons are heavily reliant on the economic impact from the facilities and the staffers they employ.
The union, he added, is urging the state to implement a more secure vendor package program to keep contraband out of the facilities and institute a "more robust" staff to inmate ratio to enhance security.
In Western New York, Mark DeBurgomaster, a regional vice president for NYSCOPBA, said upstate New York will suffer the most from the slashing of prison jobs.
"It would have been better if they spread these out instead of stacking them up like cord wood," DeBurgomaster said.
Also highlighting the blow to upstate regions was Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. He said the decision "demonstrates an ill-will toward hard-working upstate New Yorkers.
"It is no secret that Albany has buckled under the pressures of pro-criminal special interest groups, but to make this announcement the week of Christmas is distasteful," Ortt said.
According to DOCCS, the targeted prisons were chosen due to factors involving their physical infrastructure, the programs they offer to inmates, their range of medical services and whether local communities have been impacted by earlier closures. Their potential for reuse was also part of the consideration.
Jones has noted the state in the past has done little to stop the sites of some previously closed prisons from becoming blighted.
The former Chateaugay Correctional Facility in Franklin County as well as Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility in Clinton County remain vacant and decaying properties.
Chateaugay closed in 2014 and Lyon Mountain in 2011.
The latest closure move comes as the state faces a budget deficit of some $8.7 billion.
For months, New York's fiscal crisis has sparked concerns the state's effort to downsize the prison system would be more aggressive than what initial projections in March had suggested.
Not including this new round of closures, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 17 New York prisons have been closed since 2011, eliminating some 6,500 beds.
Clinton Annex adjoins but is separate from Clinton Correctional Facility, the maximum security prison from which two convicted killers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, escaped in June 2015.
The bold escape triggered a nationally-publicized manhunt. Matt was shot and killed by authorities three weeks later, while Sweat was taken into custody after being shot by State Police.
The dragnet cost an estimated $23 million.
Cuomo held a televised press briefing Monday but did not mention the prison closing plan, instead focusing on his concerns about a variant strain of the COVID-19 virus in Great Britain.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .