State will close 4 prisons, including Chateaugay (2nd update)

New York state plans to close four more prisons, including the one in Chateaugay, in response to a shrinking number of drug offenders behind bars.

State Sen. Betty Little gave the news to the Enterprise Friday, saying the state corrections commissioner had told her over the phone.

“Chateaugay began as a drug and alcohol treatment facility, and at one time they had 24,000 people in prison on drug charges,” Little said. “Now they’re down to like 7,000. Right now it’s being used for parole violators.”

She later issued a press release saying she was “very surprised and disappointed to hear the news,” and is “working on gaining more details and what can be done to prevent the closure.

“The state has to weigh the financial impact on the community and the potential for reuse,” she said in the prepared statement.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced Friday that it will close three medium-security facilities – Chateaugay, Mount McGregor in Saratoga County and Butler in Wayne County – plus the minimum-security Monterey Shock facility in Schuyler County. State officials cited a “dramatic” reduction in drug offenders in those prisons.

The prisons will remain open for a full year, giving administrators time to transfer inmates to others. Corrections spokesman Thomas Mailey said the goal is to avoid layoffs by offering employees jobs at other facilities over the next year.

Little said she is concerned for the correctional officers and their families, as well as for the Chateaugay community that would lose those workers, whether they’re transferred or laid off.

“There are 75 correction officers there, plus other staff,” said the Republican from Queensbury, whose Senate district includes the state’s northeast corner. “Even though the employees there will be transitioned to other correction facilities, those are jobs in the North Country that will no longer be there in the future. But the fact remains that the inmate population continues to drop, as it does in the entire country.”

New York has closed seven prisons since 2011 and will close two more in September. The state currently operates 60 prisons.

It’s been difficult to find other uses for prisons that have been closed in the North Country.

“Other regions of the state not only have a better capacity to absorb the economic impact of a closure, but the real estate is of much higher value,” Little said in her press release.

Camp Gabriels, which was closed in 2009, remains empty, and the former prison in Lyon Mountain recently got just one bidder at an auction, selling for the asking price of $140,000.

“We can’t get anyone to go into Gabriels,” Little told the Enterprise. “The one good note is that these places, these empty prisons, do qualify for those start-up company benefits, the tax-free zones the governor’s announced, if we can only attract some start-up companies to come there.

“We have so many good people working in corrections in our area,” Little added. “It’s kind of a generational job. There are people who are correction officers whose parents and relatives were in corrections. It’s been one of the stable, good jobs in the North Country.”

The inmate population has dropped to about 54,600 after peaking in 1999 at 72,584 under Rockefeller-era drug laws. Those mandatory sentencing guidelines were relaxed amid a drop in state crime rate over the past 10 years.

The closures are expected to save the state $30 million a year.

Though the closures have been praised by budget hawks, they have drawn fire from the union representing state corrections officers. On Friday, New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association President Donn Rowe released a statement asserting that the closings have “led to a more dangerous working environment, putting our members at greater risk of grave injury every day.”

The decisions were made after a “detailed analysis” to ensure they were safe, Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci said.

“No inmates will be released early due to the closing of a facility, and we will not have to seek any temporary, double bunking variances from the State Commission of Correction,” he said in a statement.