Locked up in New York: North Country communities brace for prison closures

Published: Jan. 6, 2022 at 6:23 PM EST
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MINEVILLE, N.Y (WCAX) - Six state prisons are set to close in New York in March including two in the North Country. It’s a move the state says will save $142 million. Kelly O’Brien visited the town of Mineville, to find out about the local prison’s unique rehabilitation programs and how its closure will impact the community.

Clinton, Essex and Franklin Counties in New York’s North Country are home to seven state correctional facilities. But how did all these prisons end up in northern New York? It dates back to Governor Mario Cuomo

“It was actually a political decision for a couple of reasons. He was Catholic and against the death penalty. Kind of forced him to say I won’t do the death penalty but we put people away for a lot longer,” said Karen Murtagh with Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York.

With the crime rate rising in the late ‘80s early ‘90s, then-Governor Cuomo had 33 new prisons built across the state, many in the North Country.

“To my understanding, they were placed to help the economy of upstate New York,” said Carol Calabrese, co-executive director of the Essex County Industrial Development Agency.

“Places like Ogdensburg, Moriah, Chateaugay opened up prisons in their communities that no one wanted at the time, especially downstate,” said John Roberts with the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association.

But as the years passed, crime rates declined and changes in criminal justice policies decreased the need for incarceration. “We certainly shouldn’t have prisons if we don’t need them and the prison population has gone from a high of 72,000 in the late ‘90s to what it is now -- 31,000 thousand -- which is the lowest it’s been since 1984,” Murtagh said.

The state has been moving to close correctional facilities -- 20 in the past decade -- with six more slated to close this year. “People shouldn’t be jumping up and down saying keep prisons open so I have a job if we don’t need those prisons,” Murtagh said.

But that position is a hard sell in prison towns like Mineville, which hosts the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility. “To think of us not all being together is devastating, it’s absolutely devastating,” said Nelida Rodriguez, whose partner works at the prison.

“I don’t think that messing with human beings or their livelihoods is appropriate just to cut some costs,” said Christina Slattery, who works at Moriah Shock.

The economic domino effect to communities from a closure can be in the millions. “You are really talking about families who occupy homes, families who pay taxes, send their children to schools, buy goods and services, gas stations, medical, food,” Calabrese said.

And it’s not just the money. “I also coach here at Moriah School. I enjoy that. It makes me happy that I may be making a difference in someone’s life, the same as our facility,” said Christina Slattery, who works at Moriah Shock

The state has said all corrections staff will be able to keep their jobs but that they may need to relocate or have a lengthy commute, and there are no guarantees they will be transferred to a facility nearby.

“The closest facility is an hour from Moriah Shock. For me, to have to do that, it will be a significant life change for me and my daughter,” Slattery said.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervisions has a budget of $3.6 billion for its 50 prisons in the state. Officials say, on average, the state spends $69,000 annually per inmate. The department wasn’t able to provide the exact cost of running Moriah Shock, or the projected savings by eliminating it, but in 2015 DOCCS said two unique rehabilitation programs at the facility saved state taxpayers $1.5 billion since its inception in 1987

“We teach them everything, we give them the tools to be successful in life after jail,” said Billie Jo Simpson, who works at the prison.

Moriah Shock Is a medium-security prison. It currently has 74 inmates with a capacity of 300, and 107 people on staff. That low capacity is why it’s on the state’s chopping block

“People are saying less inmates behind bars, Moriah doesn’t even have a fence let alone bars,” said Roberts.

The Shock Program cuts the time served for drug and alcohol-related sentences by six months if inmates complete a boot camp style program. A community service requirement also has inmates out clearing trails, cleaning prison yards, and even helping to build the annual Ice Palace in Saranac Lake, something featured in the documentary “Ice Palace: A Love Letter.”

“They kind of become a part of the crew, a part of the community, as they are working, and I found that fascinating -- was that sort of that mix, that cooperation between the locals building the ice palace and the prisoners,” said the film’s director, Mark Burns

Data suggests the programs cut down the recidivism rate by half. Those familiar with the Shock Program argue it shouldn’t be closed if the state is looking to add more drug and rehab programs. “It was a mistake. We offer every program and everything the governor would like the state to do for incarcerated individuals,” Simpson said

There are also questions about what will happen to the abandoned facilities. “The communities that got built around these are taking the brunt of this and that’s unfortunate. I don’t think the outlook was what does this mean for the communities, I think it was how can I save a dollar here, save a dollar there,” Roberts said.

All of the Moriah Shock inmates will be absorbed by the Lakeview Shock Program in Brocton.

Moriah Shock is in Assemblyman Matt Simpson’s district. He said its closure “only further exacerbate the mass incarceration problem within New York state” and urges the governor to visit the prison and reconsider her decision. Senator Dan Stec said, “I am deeply disappointed that Governor Hochul did not reconsider her decision to close Moriah Shock, after numerous discussions with the Governor’s office outlining the program’s success stories and the overall effectiveness that it has had on many lives”.

Governor Kathy Hochul announced a plan for the prisons in her 2021 State of the State address. She says the closures will “not only saves taxpayers millions of dollars but also creates the opportunity to transform these facilities in more creative and productive ways.”

The next step is to form a commission that looks at redevelopment opportunities that will serve the state’s economic needs. She said the commission will be made up of multiple state agencies, foundations, regional leaders, and stakeholders, as well as economic development experts. “In developing an action plan, this cross-cutting group should identify key goals that support New York State priorities, such as good-paying job growth, job training for high-growth industries, and small business support,” she said of the group. “The commission should also consider factors like site conditions, surrounding land use, redevelopment costs, local workforce trends, and regional economic development strategies.”

This commission will work to help New York turn empty prison cells into opportunities for more communities to thrive.

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