Budget Knife Is Aimed At Prison System In N.Y.

In New York state, prison towns and state corrections officers are bracing for another big cut as Gov. Andrew Cuomo takes aim at what he has described as a bloated prison system.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The federal budget will get all the attention this week, between a budget battle, a possible government shutdown, and proposals for the next fiscal year. But the situation at the state level is in many ways more desperate. States face more restrictions on borrowing money. They provide a lot of basic local services, and so this morning we will check in on three states making painful budget choices.

We begin with Brian Mann in Ogdensburg in Upstate New York.

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BRIAN MANN: This is a prison town. For 30 years two state correctional facilities have anchored the local economy. Hundreds of people work behind the bars. But now Governor Andrew Cuomo, as part of a budget cutting effort, is talking about closing five prisons statewide, and people here are worried.

Mr. CHAD STICKNEY (Prison Guard): For Ogdensburg to lose either prison, Riverview or Ogdensburg Correctional, would be economically devastating.

MANN: Chad Stickney is a guard who's worked in Ogdensburg Correctional for 12 years. A decade ago he says corrections work guaranteed high-paying jobs with good benefits. In those days crime rates were high and New York State was flush with money. But with inmate populations dropping, Governor Cuomo made mothballing prisons a top priority as part of his effort to close a $10 billion hole in the budget without raising taxes.

Here he is speaking earlier this year in his State of the State address.

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Governor ANDREW CUOMO (Democrat, New York): An incarceration program is not an employment program. If people need jobs, let's get people jobs. Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs.

MANN: It's still not clear exactly how many prisons will close. But last week, Cuomo won authority from the legislature to eliminate 3,700 prison beds statewide.

Prison guard Chad Stickney says his industry is collapsing and those officers who can afford to retire or find other work are getting out.

Mr. STICKNEY: Right now we're losing a rate of 70 to 80 officers a month. And with no academy running, they have to close prisons, just to keep up with retirements.

MANN: But dozens of New York towns, like Ogdensburg, built economies around these prison jobs, and a lot of people here just don't believe that the private sector will offer that kind of opportunity not soon and maybe not ever.

Katie Morgan runs the Busy Corner Cafe. She says even without a prison closure, things here are hard.

Ms. KATIE MORGAN (Cafe Owner): Taking money away from them(ph) would make it a lot worse. They're one of these people going out and buying food and tipping the waitress, just going somewhere else, and Wal-Mart, whatever.

MANN: Ogdensburg lost 10 percent of its population over the last decade, as factories and businesses closed. Governor Cuomo is expected to announce which prisons will close and which prison jobs will be lost in the next 30 days.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Upstate New York.

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