New York state shuts 7 prisons in budget crunch

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 30, 2011 7:34 PM
New York state shuts 7 prisons in budget crunch

By Joan Gralla

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday chose the seven prisons that will be shut down to save $184 million, a contentious issue because the upstate area values these facilities for the jobs they create.

All but two of the prisons are located in the upstate region, which has never fully recovered from the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last few decades.

New York City, the state's economic engine, will lose two prisons -- one in Staten Island and one in the Bronx.

The Democratic New York governor's plan to consolidate the prison system mirrors efforts by other governors around the nation to save taxpayer dollars by streamlining agencies.

With tax revenue still running below pre-recession levels, Connecticut's Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy, for example, on Thursday said his plan to cut the number of state agencies by 30 percent was "well under way."

New York's upstate area is largely dominated by Republican lawmakers who blocked other governors from closing prisons in their region -- though a few were almost empty -- due to a 25 percent drop in the overall crime rate in the last decade.

The number of prisoners in New York has fallen by 22 percent to about 56,000 today from around 71,600 hit 12 years ago, Cuomo said. Reforms of the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws, which were among the nation's harshest when they were enacted, also have cut the number of inmates over the years.

Cuomo, a former state attorney general, had bashed the policy of relying on prisons for upstate jobs. The areas where the facilities will be closed will get the benefit of a $50 million fund and tax credits to aid their economies, he said.

"New York will continue to keep the highest standard of public safety and maintain one of the safest correctional systems in the country," he said in a statement.

CRITICS SAY PRISON VIOLENCE TO RISE

However, the state's second-biggest union, which represents professionals such as nurses and doctors who work at state prisons, said the closures would likely increase violence.

"Inmate-on-inmate assaults, inmate-on-staff assaults, inmate suicides and contraband all increased from 2009 to 2010," said Public Employees Federation President Ken Brynien.

"Inmate-on-inmate assaults were up more than 12 percent and inmate suicides doubled," he added in a statement, blaming staff cuts and overcrowding at some facilities.

Cuomo. like many governors, inherited a multibillion-dollar deficit when he took office in January. On Thursday. he said his administration has begun sending out layoff notices to several hundred state workers.

The Public Employees Federation union has not accepted the governor's offer of no layoffs in return for a two-year wage freeze and other concessions. In contrast, the state's biggest union, the Civil Service Employees Association, has accepted the accord; other unions are still negotiating.

(Reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by Jan Paschal)