Tracking the Recession: Prison Economics

 

FALLSBURG, N.Y. - The Sullivan Annex, a minimum-security state prison perched on a slope above a fishing creek here in the foothills of upstate New York, is an unlikely political battleground.

A perimeter fence with no barbed wire surrounds the tree-lined complex, which holds two single-story brick dormitories. Inmates in dark-green garb, most convicted of minor offenses, frequently leave the grounds to paint, pick up litter and do other jobs in this rural community about two hours north of Manhattan. A swing set on a spacious patch of grass keeps inmates' children busy when they visit.

Despite the serene appearance - a stark contrast to the barbed-wire-enclosed maximum-security prison just up the road - the Sullivan Annex is at the center of a pitched struggle between state officials on one hand and the powerful New York correctional officers' union and local leaders on the other.

Hammered by the recession and trying to squeeze money out of every state agency, New York is closing the Sullivan Annex and nine other minimum- and medium-security prison facilities by Oct. 1 to save an estimated $52 million over two years.

Hundreds of union members are expected to protest the plan - which is now final - at a rally in Albany, the state capital, on Tuesday (June 2). The union is airing TV and radio commercials that blame the state for jeopardizing the safety of correctional officers while sparing well-paying administrative positions that are away from the front lines. And local leaders say lost prison jobs will worsen an already unsteady economic situation in their communities.

The closures are part of a state budget agreement to tackle a more than $16 billion budget gap, created in part by staggering revenue losses after Wall Street's collapse. Other states, including Colorado, Kansas, Nevada and North Carolina, also have considered closing prisons this year as a way to save money in tough times.

The roughly 140 inmates at the Sullivan Annex - in addition to 530 inmates at the other prisons or camps that are slated to close - will be moved to other facilities with open beds. Meanwhile, the state has mailed letters to the 550 correctional officers and civilian employees whose positions will be eliminated, including 55 at the Sullivan Annex.

Most will continue to work for the state. Like the inmates, however, they will be moved to other prisons, sometimes hundreds of miles away, and have new responsibilities.

"We are like everybody else. We have to cut back. We just don't have the money," said Erik Kriss, a spokesman with the state Department of Correctional Services, which is overseeing the closures. "These are different times, and this is a big crisis that we face."

As state officials like Gov. David Paterson (D) and corrections commissioner Brian Fischer are finding, however, closing a prison - even when there is space for inmates and work for correctional officers elsewhere - is easier said than done.

The union here has argued that moving more inmates into less space will create " the most dangerous conditions ever " for prison workers, even as the state disputes that assertion .

Local politicians worry about the economic consequences. In rural towns like Fallsburg (population 13,000), where empty store fronts dot Main Street, even relatively small employers such as the Sullivan Annex provide well-paying jobs and generate income for local businesses. New York's prison system is this county's top employer , operating not only the annex and maximum-security prison in Fallsburg but also a medium-security facility in the neighboring town of Woodbourne.

Sullivan Annex employees "are renting apartments, buying groceries, buying gas," said Gary Dahlman, a correctional officer at the annex. "All that stuff affects the economy."

New York's clash over prison closures has stirred worries that are familiar to other states considering similar plans in tight times. Proposed closures often run into opposition from unions and communities that have come to depend on prisons for much-needed jobs and other, less-noticed benefits.

In Nevada, where a wave of home foreclosures and a slump in tourism have helped create a historic state budget crisis, Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) earlier this year proposed closing the 841-bed Nevada State Prison in Carson City to save $33 million over two years. The plan was backed by Howard Skolnik, the state corrections chief, but lawmakers rejected the proposal after prison workers complained that up to 200 jobs would be eliminated or relocated and local officials mounted their own protests, citing economic concerns.

In Kansas, local officials have opposed the closing of a minimum-security prison in El Dorado, about 30 miles east of Wichita, saying they don't know how they will keep up with park maintenance and other community jobs that the inmates perform. A Republican state representative from the region is working to get the state corrections department to change its mind and keep the prison open.

Here in New York, work crews from the Sullivan Annex have stocked trout in local rivers, shoveled around fire hydrants after snowstorms, worked at a nearby food bank and cleaned up campgrounds, said Dahlman, the prison officer. Now that the state has announced it is closing the prison, he said, crews are accepting fewer requests from churches and other community groups in case they won't be able to finish the jobs.

The inmates' work "was very helpful, especially to cash-strapped communities like ours," Steve Levine, the town supervisor here, told Stateline.org in the office of the lumber store he owns near the center of town.

But not all officials in this county are fighting the state's plan. In nearby Monticello, a town of 7,000, Mayor Gordon Jenkins - who also works the graveyard shift as a correctional officer at the maximum-security prison in Fallsburg - said he is encouraged by the trend of decreasing inmate populations that has allowed New York to close prisons.

"Unions, that's their job, to have people working, and I can respect that," Jenkins said in an interview in his office. But, he said, he would much rather have a hospital in his community than a prison.

 
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