Clock is ticking on Chateaugay prison shutdown

MALONE – The fight to keep Chateaugay Correctional Facility open continues, even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014-15 budget proposal Tuesday reaffirmed his intention to close it and three other prisons.

During last week’s Franklin County Board of Legislators meeting, state Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru, said she had been surprised to see closing the prison reappear on last year’s Assembly budget.

“I was able to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to have it removed from the Assembly budget,” Duprey said. “I thought we were home free, and then it came back as a non-budget closure. It’s the first time I’ve seen that happen since I’ve been there.”

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced on July 26, 2013, that it would close three medium-security facilities this coming summer – Chateaugay, Mount McGregor in Saratoga County and Butler in Wayne County – plus the minimum-security Monterey Shock facility in Schuyler County.

Those four would be added to a list of seven prisons New York state has closed since 2011. The state currently operates 60 prisons. The additional closures are expected to save the state $30 million annually.

There is another side to those savings, though. In November 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that unemployment in Franklin County was at 8.1 percent and in Essex County it was at 8.4 percent. The state average is 6.9 percent.

If closed, the Chateaugay facility’s 75 corrections officers wouldn’t be laid off but would instead be added to a transfer list, meaning many of them might have to relocate to secure work. The prison currently employs 111 people, totaling $7.8 million in payroll a year.

“Somebody determined, and I still can’t find out why, which ones (facilities) would be closed based upon budgeting,” Duprey said. “I disagree with the decision to close the Chateaugay prison facility.”

In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proudly announced that 5,500 prison beds have been emptied statewide. That might be saving the state money, but it doesn’t seem to be staunching the state’s 40 percent recidivism rate.

“If we’re going to stop that 40 percent recidivism rate, there has to be some place to do that, and some place to convince these former inmates not to come back the third time,” Duprey said. “Chateaugay is certainly a great facility to have that happen. I would hope that we can help convince them that there’s still a role for Chateaugay in this system.”

Duprey said she will continue to fight the closure, but she suggested county legislators prepare for the worst.

County board Chairman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, has been on the front lines in the battle to convince Cuomo to keep the prison running. He has been an outspoken advocate for the facility and helped organize a well-attended rally last summer to drum up support for keeping it open.

“From day one it’s been said it’s going to save us money,” Jones told the Enterprise. “It’s not saving money when we’re returning 40 percent of these young men back into the system. The 5,500 beds, who can argue with that? I can’t argue with that. It saves everybody money. But a recidivism rate of 40 percent? That’s bad for everybody.”

Jones explained that the focus of the Chateaugay facility’s programs is to keep the recidivism rate down by giving parole violators an option besides returning to prison.

“We can’t send people right back into the neighborhoods where they were getting into trouble to begin with and expect them not to get arrested again,” Jones said. “And we can’t send them back to jail, where they are surrounded by bad influences, and expect them not to get arrested again when they’re released. At a place like Chateaugay, prisoners are rehabbed. They have a chance to not come back.”

Jones said he and others will continue to make that argument to Cuomo with hope that the governor will see the value in the facility.

“I’d say that, by putting money into this facility to enhance its programs, we can argue that the state will actually be saving money by lowering the recidivism rate,” Jones said. “Give us some proper time and funding, and we can develop more programs that work better toward that goal.”