Dismantling the rural culture of prisons

save our prisonNew York state announced last week that it hopes to dismantle four more state-run correctional facilities, bringing to 15 the number of prisons mothballed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

This trend comes as part of a national push to reduce the costs of mass-incarceration and state officials here say the cutbacks will save taxpayers roughly $30 million a year.

There is a direct link here to major reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws, enacted by the Paterson administration in 2009.  Those laws mean dramatically fewer drug offenders spending years, or even decades, behind bars.

But the trend also means a radical, and abrupt, shift for rural towns that have come to rely on corrections work, which was once seen as a “recession proof” industry.

State Senator Betty Little, a Republican from Queensbury, New York, has long been an advocate for the region’s prison industry.  In an interview with the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, she spoke of the blow to the local culture.

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

Dismantling an industry?  Ending an injustice?  Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility mothballed. (Photo: NYS)

Dismantling an industry? Ending an injustice? Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility mothballed. (Photo: NYS)

I know this linkage makes people uncomfortable.  Governor Cuomo himself, in his first state of the state address, called for a clear divorce of the two ideas that long connected criminal justice and rural economic policy.

“An incarceration program is not an employment program,” Cuomo insisted in 2011.  “If people need jobs, let’s get people jobs.  Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs.  Don’t put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs.  That’s not what this state is all about.  And that has to end this session.”

The problem, of course, is that so far there are no jobs on the horizon for these communities.  Lyon Mountain prison – a big facility – sold for just $140,000.  That’s hardly a vote of confidence by bidders.

And for families that have long viewed corrections – like factory work or farming – as a kind of traditional industry, these latest closures mean more hard times.

So what do you think?  Do governments have an obligation to help rural towns where the prisons are closing down?  Comments, as always, welcome.


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Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, the NY Council for the Humanities and by numerous individual donors via Kickstarter. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust.