Trending Topics

Western N.Y. prisons wait to see if their facilities will close

The state’s union president said that in previous rounds of closures, many corrections officers have chosen to retire or change careers rather than uproot their families

Auburn Correctional Facility

The Auburn Correctional Facility in Cayuga County is among 54 New York state correctional facilities.

Michael Greenlar/TNS

By Justin Sondel
The Buffalo News, N.Y.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Among the thousands of pages in the state budget passed in April was a provision that would allow for the closure of up to five of the state’s 44 prisons in the coming fiscal year, a measure that did not get much fanfare during the sausage-making process.

Now, with the state making no announcements on which prisons will be closed or when the announcements will come, staff members, members of prison host communities and the lawmakers who represent those areas of Western New York are watching with interest to see which of the seven prisons in the region, if any, will close.

Prison inmate populations have dropped by 41% over 13 years, but the move to close prisons has angered prison staff, their union representatives and many Republican lawmakers, as they argue that staffing shortages and increased attacks, both between prisoners and against guards, have drastically weakened morale among corrections officers across the state.

Chris Summers, the president of the statewide corrections officers union, said that in previous rounds of closures, many corrections officers have chosen to retire or change careers rather than uproot their families. And staffing shortages require officers to work long hours, which, combined with increases in violence in prisons have made it difficult to recruit new corrections officers, all problems he believes will be exacerbated by further closings.

“The morale of our frontline staff has already surpassed an all-time low,” Summers said to The Buffalo News in an email. “Prison closures will only create additional hardships for our members, who are already stressed and considering leaving the job for other professions.”

Included in the state budget is a clause that requires that the state give 90 days notice to staff ahead of a prison closing, a part of the deal that both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature found objectionable.

Matt Janiszewski, a spokesperson for Gov. Kathy Hochul, said no decisions on potential closures have been made.

“The facilities have not yet been identified,” he said in an emailed statement.

State Sen. Rob Ortt , the Republican minority leader in the chamber, said he views the 90-day notice for prison closures as a minimum amount of time and wants Hochul and the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, commonly referred to as DOCCS, to consider giving people in the communities more time to figure things out after the announcements are made.

The closures will also have an economic impact in the towns and surrounding areas where prisons are closed. In many of the rural communities where state prisons are located, DOCCS employs a significant percentage of the community. In addition, employees of the prison spend their money in local businesses.

“We can give people and the workers more time,” Ortt said. “I don’t see that as a bad thing or a hardship or any, any burden upon the government. I see it as a more graceful way to do something that is very difficult.”

State Sen. Sean Ryan said that he and other Democrats fought to get the 90-day window outlined in Hochul’s budget changed, but ultimately couldn’t get it done.

“You have to transfer your family to another region of the state,” Ryan said. “That’s switching school districts in the middle of the year. And that’s generally just not enough time for people, so we wanted to give the families way more of a soft landing and unfortunately, we weren’t able to achieve it.”

The state has already closed nine prisons in the last three years and 24 since 2011. But the prison system has continued to hemorrhage employees and the number of incarcerated people.

The prison population has shrunk from around 56,000 in 2011 to just over 33,000 today, a result of changes in state law that de-emphasize incarceration and falling crime rates, mirroring a decadeslong drop in crime nationally. That’s up from 30,000 in 2022, when disruptions in the court system due to Covid-19 restrictions, inmate deaths and other pandemic-related effects brought the population to its lowest point in decades, according to state data.

Will WNY prisons close?

The decision-making process for choosing prisons to close is internal to the DOCCS, the department that runs the prison system. There are many criteria considered by the state, including percentage of filled cells, the percentage of filled positions at the prison and specialized programs at each individual prison that may be valuable or unique to the overall system.

Jennifer Scaife is the executive director at the Correctional Association of New York, an independent agency created by state law in 1846 to monitor activity at state prisons and create public reports on data and conditions in the prisons.

Scaife stressed that she was not making any predictions about whether any individual prisons would be closed. Her organization plays no role in that DOCCS process.

However, she said that most of the prisons in Western New York should have strong cases for remaining open based on the criteria that has played a role in previous prison closures and testimony from the governor’s budget office as part of this year’s budget process.

She pointed to Collins Correctional Facility as an example of one of the Western New York prisons that likely has a strong case to remain open − it is 83% full, only 2% of security positions were vacant, only 9% of support service positions were vacant and no program positions were vacant, according to DOCCS data collected and mapped by the Correctional Association of New York.

In addition, it has a residential rehabilitation unit, a program that serves inmates previously held in solitary confinement regularly because of mental health and other issues. Those units are increasingly important to the system after the state’s Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act passed in 2022, which significantly restricts the use of segregated confinement.

But working against Collins is the 45% vacancy rate in the prison’s health services department and its distance from population centers, a measure Scaife’s organization has pushed the state to consider in closure decisions.

“It doesn’t look to me that Collins is a candidate for closure, but I’m not a decision-maker, and I don’t have access to any kind of insider information,” she said.

Other Western New York prisons − Attica, Wyoming, Orleans, Albion, Wende − all have high percentages of full cells and relatively low percentages of vacant positions, especially among security staff.

Lakeview Correctional Facility is an outlier, as it is only 51% full. It is also far from most inmates’ county of commitment − the place they were sentenced − being the westernmost prison in the system. However, the minimum security prison runs unique drug treatment programming that emphasizes discipline and life skills not available in many other state prisons, which also makes it a good candidate to remain open.

State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, former Erie County sheriff and a member of the Senate’s Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, said that if DOCCS cannot properly staff prisons that will be taking on inmates from closing prisons, there is the potential that already rising levels of violence could get worse.

“When we put them together and a prison closes and the incarcerated people go to another prison, you put more people in an already dangerous situation,” Gallivan said. “There’s greater potential for problems in the receiving facilities, because now you have more people there and not as much staff.”

Ortt said he will be pushing back for all the members of his caucus and their constituents, who host an outsized number of state prisons in their districts.

“Now we have to wait and see and try to find out where those closures will be,” Ortt said. “Then work with the state and work with our corrections officers in those local communities to brace for that impact.”


(c)2024 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)
Visit The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) at
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.