Four maximum-security facilities are in no danger of closing

 Four maximum-security facilities are in no danger of closing

There are 67 prisons in New York state; 3,700 beds must be cut. Seven prisons in our region, including Fishkill Correctional Facility, are threatened.DOMINICK FIORILLE/Times Herald-Record

By Chris Mckenna

Times Herald-Record

Published: 2:00 AM – 04/27/11

Where will the ax fall? Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in Warwick? The state prison just outside Otisville? The medium-security site near the Ulster County hamlet of Wallkill?

Nearly two months after state lawmakers passed a belt-tightening budget, more than 2,800 prison employees working in this region are awaiting a lingering decision that could upend their lives: Which prisons will Gov. Andrew Cuomo close to eliminate 3,700 prison beds statewide?

Cuomo’s spending plan demanded prison space be reduced by that amount — in response to declining inmate numbers — but let the governor decide afterward which of the state’s 67 prisons to close.

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Closure Aid

As a way to soften the economic impact of a closed prison, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers have set aside $50 million in the budget for capital costs that foster economic development in communities affected by a closure.

According to the state Division of Budget, those funds will be distributed by the Empire State Development Corp. with advice from regional economic development councils, which have yet to be established. No set amounts are reserved for each area where a prison has closed.

In addition, the state has created tax credits for businesses that open near a closed prison and create at least five jobs. Employers can claim the benefit for five years but must apply for the credits within three years of the closure in order to be eligible.

That delay shrewdly bypassed a political minefield, but has left agonizing suspense for the workers and their families, who wonder when that fateful announcement will come.

It also has triggered an intense lobbying campaign by state lawmakers hoping to preserve their local prisons, which tend to be among the larger employers in their districts.

“It’s a terrible position for people to wake up and say, ‘Am I going to have a job in three weeks?'” said Assemblywoman Annie Rabbitt, R-Greenwood Lake, who recently met with Cuomo’s top aide, Steve Cohen, to argue on behalf of the Otisville and Warwick prisons.

Maximum security not at risk

Both medium-security facilities opened in 1977, and they employ a total of 610 people.

All told, nearly 5,000 people work at eight state prisons in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties and three sites just across the Hudson River from Newburgh, in Dutchess County, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Assemblyman Tom Kirwan, R-Newburgh, who has two prisons fully in his district and two others straddling the district line, said his strongest argument for keeping them open is their relative proximity to New York City, where most inmates are from. Being close to the city makes it easier for family members to visit, he said.

But as he observed, with tongue in cheek: “Like everyone else, I want every place closed except the ones in my district.”

The job uncertainty affects about 2,800 of the region’s nearly 5,000 prison employees because the four maximum-security facilities are in no danger of closing.

The state plans to shut only medium- and minimum-security prisons, where inmate numbers have plunged because of lower crime levels and the softening of sentences for low-level drug offenders.

The targeted facilities are expected to close 60 days after employees are informed. State law normally requires that workers get a year’s notice, but the budget shortened that period to save money this fiscal year.

Many factors still uncertain

The local impact of any closures could extend beyond job losses. Closing the Otisville prison, for instance, would cost the nearby village one of its largest water customers.

“They help offset our water budget and the maintenance,” said Otisville Mayor Brian Wona.

Mid-Orange supports a Warwick sewer district in the same fashion, sparing other customers much of the maintenance cost, Supervisor Michael Sweeton said.

For that and other reasons — the jobs, the community-service work inmates perform — he supports keeping open the prison.

“In the 10 years that I’ve been here, it’s been a real asset,” Sweeton said.

Few state lawmakers have as much at stake as Sen. John Bonacic, R-C-Mount Hope, whose district has seven prisons, four of which are medium-security facilities.

“I don’t think my district is immune,” Bonacic said. “The reality is, I have a lot of prisons in my district. I think the closings have to be fairly spread around the state and have to be based on the infrastructure of the facility.”

Much about the impending closures remains uncertain: how many prisons or prison wings will close, how many workers will be offered jobs elsewhere, and what the state will do with closed facilities.

One potential bright spot for host communities is that redeveloping those properties could bring in tax-paying businesses.

Many prisons are surrounded by large, undeveloped tracts — Mid-Orange sits on more than 1,000 acres — that generate little or no property tax revenue.

But that prospect does not appeal to Mount Hope Supervisor William Novak, who suspects that only residential builders would have interest in the 733 acres that Otisville Correctional Facility occupies.

“That’s my biggest fear — that you’re going to see a lot of housing developments, not businesses,” Novak said.

cmckenna@th-record.com

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