New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will unveil a plan Tuesday to cut his state's budget deficit, which now stands at more than $11 billion. Cuomo is considering massive layoffs that could hit as many as 10,000 state workers. And the state's prison system could face the deepest cuts.
But prisons are a major source of jobs in upstate New York, where unemployment tops 10 percent. When the state announced it wanted to close the Lyon Mountain prison, which sits just south of the U.S.-Canada border, locals like Karen Linney were devastated.
"There's no jobs anywhere!" she said. "So we need to fight to keep this prison open or there's nothing."
Lyon Mountain used to be a mining town. But as factories and mines in this region closed in the 1960s and '70s, the state replaced them one by one with prisons.
"The state understood that the economy in the North Country was hurting. We needed help," says state Sen. Betty Little, who spoke at a town meeting last year at the Lyon Mountain American Legion hall.
Little's sprawling rural district has 13 state prisons, and she says they should all stay right where they are.
"We built an economy around these facilities and there's absolutely nothing, nothing to replace those jobs," she says.
Prisons As An Economic Engine
Strange as it seems to outsiders, people here have long thought of prisons as an industry. Jobs there are a kind of trade passed on from generation to generation.
But this livelihood is being squeezed hard by two big changes.
Crime rates in New York State plummeted over the past decade, and the number of inmates dropped 20 percent. Because the state eased mandatory drug sentences last year, the prison population is expected to shrink even more.
The other big change is the state's deepening budget crisis. In his State of the State address earlier this month, Cuomo said using prisons to prop up rural economies is no longer affordable. "An incarceration program is not an employment program," he said. "If people need jobs, let's get people jobs. Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs. That's not what this state is all about. And that has to end this session."
Cuomo's announcement drew praise from prison reform advocates like Bob Gangi. "It's somewhat ironic that he says that's not what this state is all about," Gangi says. "Because that's what the state has been about for about the last 30 years."
Gangi says the old policy was too expensive. The Department of Correctional Services still employs nearly 19,000 prison guards statewide. But Gangi argues that the system also created an economic incentive to lock up people who should have been in drug rehab or mental health counseling.
"One of the problems with using incarceration as a jobs program is the fundamental immorality of it," he says. "Because as he said, you're locking up people in order to provide other people jobs."
But rural leaders in New York say their towns provide a needed service, housing and caring for the state's criminals. They accuse state officials of closing prisons hastily, with no plans for redevelopment.
Brian McDonnell has been working to help sell a prison mothballed in 2009 that sits smack in the middle of his community of Brighton, N.Y. He says the former Camp Gabriels was abandoned and left in terrible shape.
"There was black mold in a lot of — several of the metal buildings," he says. "The state didn't do us any favors by just closing everything up."
'We Need To Rally As A Whole'
Any new prison cuts announced Tuesday are sure to spark a major political fight in the state Legislature. Avoiding closures may be impossible, given the budget crisis, but Little, the state senator, says she hopes corrections facilities in these rural towns will be spared.
"I certainly don't believe that we need to create inmates to fill prisons," she says. "But I do believe that when we decide to downsize, we need to look at the economic impact. It would be my hope that they would look in other areas of the state."
But prison guards like Chad Stickney are worried. He lives in Ogdensburg, N.Y., where there are actually two state prisons — one of them targeted for closure last year.
"We need to unite as every jail above Albany," Stickney says. "Because that's where all these jails closures are coming from are above Albany. We need to rally as a whole."
The prison in Lyon Mountain closed its doors earlier this month, costing that tiny town more than 90 jobs.