How prison closures would affect small NY communities

Published: Apr. 24, 2019 at 4:48 PM EDT
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo plans to close up to three New York state prisons.

He says the crime rate is going down and fewer people are being locked up, so the state doesn't need as many prisons.

Criminal justice reform is a big part of Cuomo's focus and he has said many times that prisons are not a jobs program. But communities that have prisons have other thoughts.

Prison jobs make up a large sum of North Country salaries. Most of the state prisons are located in small, rural towns. So, how would a prison closure impact these communities? Our Kelly O'Brien went to one town to find out.

Sixteen miles northwest of Plattsburgh, you will stumble upon Altona.

"Picturesque, I guess you'd say," Altona Town Supervisor Larry Ross said.

The town spans 100-square miles with a population of just 2,900.

"Nice little community, everybody is kind of close, everybody pretty much knows each other," Ross said.

One of the largest employers in the area is the Altona Correctional Facility, a medium security state prison. What was once the school for Altona is now the home to 500 inmates.

"There are employees from everywhere just about in the area, of course, that's how prison systems work," Ross said.

In his latest State of the State address, Governor Cuomo announced up to three state prisons will close. Three prisons have already closed in this district in the last nine years.

"I suppose you're always on the radar when they start looking to close," Ross said.

"We just can't continue to take this hit and I will continue to fight tooth and nail to make sure prisons in my district are spared from that," said Assemblyman D. Bill Jones, D-Chateaugay.

It's unknown if Altona will be on the chopping block, but if it is...

"It would be a ghost town, everything would be closed," said Jeff Forkum of Peru, New York. "It would be like the depression."

Ross says the prison has many benefits to Altona. Not only do those employed spend money locally for lunches, but the inmates also work to spruce up the community.

"They help us out, have work crews come out and clean the park," Ross said.

Community members fear a closure would lengthen their commutes or force them to move altogether.

"That created a life for people here. You take their life away, then they need to travel somewhere. It will cost them more money to live," Forkum said.

The governor says the Department of Corrections has until Sept. 1 to announce which prisons will close and relocate all employees and inmates.