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Gowanda prison closing ‘terrible news’

GOWANDA — Village Mayor David Smith on Monday afternoon called the impending closing of the Gowanda Correctional Facility “terrible news for the hundreds of local workers.”

Smith, who said he participated in a Bible study with the prisoners there every Monday before the COVID-19 pandemic, said the news of the closing comes as a “total surprise.”

“To get news right before the holidays that a March 31 closing is imminent is a huge piece of bad news for this community that has worked hard to fight through this pandemic and so much more,” he said. “The state’s budget has been in bad shape long before COVID. Those in power like to link the deficit to COVID, but the budget has been struggling for awhile,” Smith said.

News of the correctional facility’s closing came out around noon. In addition to Gowanda, the facility in Watertown and the Clinton Annex also are slated to close at the end of March.

In a statement, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesman Thomas Mailey cited work by state Gov. Andrew Cuomo and some of the nation’s most progressive criminal justice reforms by spearheading a series of smart and fair policies that have closed prisons and decreased incarceration rates, brought accountability and transparency to our criminal justice system, protected the rights of victims and upheld due process, all while ensuring New York residents remain safe and secure.

“Since Gov. Cuomo took office in 2011, the prison population has declined by more than 22,000 — a 39% reduction — from 57,229 to 34,842 people, as of Dec. 21. In fact, the current (Department of Corrections and Community Supervision) population is at its lowest level in more than 30 years, with New York leading the nation with the lowest imprisonment rate of any large state,” he said.

Operations at the state’s 52 correctional facilities were reviewed, Mailey said. The decision to close the three locations was based the decision on a variety of factors, including physical infrastructure, program offerings, facility security level, specialized medical and mental health services, other facilities in the area to minimize the impact to staff, potential reuse options and areas of the state where prior closures have occurred in order to minimize the impact to communities. “With the closure of these two facilities and the Clinton-Annex, we will be able to absorb the incarcerated population into vacant beds available at other institutions. These closures will result in an annual savings of approximately $89 million and a reduction of around 2,750 beds,” he said.

Mailey said the department will work closely with the various bargaining units to provide staff opportunities for priority placement via voluntary transfers and will receive priority in terms of employment at other facilities or other state agencies as a result of the formal Civil Service process that is followed with the closure of a correctional facility. DOCCS does not anticipate any layoffs due to these closures.

That, however, does not suit the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association Inc. The union criticized both the timing and decision. “Announcing closures just days before Christmas is not only highly inconsiderate but it also demonstrates a lack of respect for the hardworking men and women of NYSCOPBA and their families,” said Michael B. Powers, president. “Can Gov, Cuomo look our members in the face and say that, despite prison violence at near record levels, closing prisons is what’s best and will produce a safer environment?”

Despite having authority to close more state prisons, NYSCOPBA has urged the governor and the Legislature to halt any closure plans until violence escalation within the prison system is first addressed. “Calling for additional closures will only serve to condense the prison population within a decreasing number of facilities, further jeopardizing the safety of NYSCOPBA members and the inmate population as a whole,” Powers said.

The union, which represents correctional officers and sergeants working inside New York’s prisons, has for years been calling on the State Legislature and the Governor to refrain from prison closures before an adequate assessment of safety within the prison system occurs. That has yet to happen, according to NYSCOPBA.

Likewise, the economic impact of this news cannot be understated. Upstate communities that maintain prisons rely heavily on revenue generated from those employed in such facilities. “Removing hundreds of jobs within these localities will be a crippling financial blow. And to deliver this news just days before Christmas is flat out wrong. We’ll continue to fight for our members and the communities where they live.

New York state Republican chairman Nick Langworthy was just as bitter, calling the Gowanda announcement “as cold-hearted and miserly as you can get.”

Mayor Smith, however, promises to do whatever he can in hopes of changing the state’s decision. “This came out of left field and caught us totally by surprise,” he said. “To knock out hundreds of local jobs right before the holidays is extremely frustrating. Even if these people keep jobs in corrections they’ll either have long commutes or have to relocate.”

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