Prison Closings Trouble Upstate New York The drop in inmate populations in New York comes as terrible news in the state's northern counties, where prisons are a big part of the economy. Empty jail beds have led the governor to propose closing four prisons. Some residents are fighting to keep them open.
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Prison Closings Trouble Upstate New York

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Prison Closings Trouble Upstate New York

Prison Closings Trouble Upstate New York

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ROBERT SMITH: With that part of the story, North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: Here in Northern New York, the rural counties that crowd the Canadian border have been known as Little Siberia for decades, because of the harsh winters there and because prisons are a big part of the local economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANN: On a frigid morning, Saranac Lake's Winter Carnival parade winds down Main Street. There are dancing clowns and fire trucks and National Guardsmen home from Iraq. And there in the middle of the parade is a float carrying a giant banner that reads Save Camp Gabriels.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANN: Gabriels is a minimum-security prison camp that sits just up the road, one of four state facilities slated for closure. Mary Ellen Keith is a local government official and activist who spoke at a packed pro-prison last month.

MARY ELLEN KEITH: We can't lose this - this is more than just dollars. This is life. This is our heritage.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MANN: It turns out that declining inmate populations are terrible news here, where prisons are viewed with roughly the same loyalty and fondness as factories or farms. They provide the best, most stable jobs. Camp Gabriels alone employs more than 180 people and contributes roughly $40 million each year to the regional economy.

MIKE VASCUKYNAS: If they leave, it's going to be devastation. I mean, there's nothing else around here.

MANN: Mike Vascukynas owns a camera shop in Saranac Lake. He says prison guards and their families bring him a lot of business. When he opened his shop two decades ago, the state of New York faced soaring crime rates and was scrambling to build more than a dozen prisons.

VASCUKYNAS: The prisons brought a lot of economy into the area, that's why they were here. And then, you know, there's no place else to put them.

MANN: The first North Country prisons were built back in the 1800s. In the 1980s, a second wave of prison-building reshaped the region's culture. As farms and paper mills went under, more people went to work for the penitentiaries. Republican State Senator Betty Little says this region still provides a vital service.

BETTY LITTLE: The fact that there are 12 facilities in my Senate district is because no one wanted them. And we took them. And, yes, we developed an economy around them. But that's not, you know, the fault of this area.

MANN: These days, Camp Gabriels operates at about half capacity, just under 190 inmates. But Little argues that too many inmates are being crowded into prisons downstate.

LITTLE: You know, I will be the first to admit that if there are no inmates, you don't have any prisons for them. But that's not really the case of what's happening here. They are double bunking still - and have over 6,000 active double bunks right now.

MANN: State officials say housing two inmates in a single cell is a widely accepted practice. And Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer argues that closing prisons is a common-sense move that will help dent New York state's $4.5 billion deficit.

ELIOT SPITZER: What we are doing is saving the taxpayers $70 million. It's hard. With the prison population down by about 7,000 over the last couple of years, it makes sense to rationalize our prison structure. That's what we're doing.

MANN: Even before inmate populations began to drop, the North Country's prison industry drew fire from critics like Robert Gangi. Gangi who heads a prison policy reform group called Correctional Association of New York. He says building an economy around inmates always raise troubling questions.

ROBERT GANGI: Ninety percent of the drug offenders locked up in New York state prisons are people of color. And virtually all of the prisons that have been built in recent years to house drug offenders have been located in upstate, white rural communities.

MANN: Gangi says New York should help revitalize small towns like Saranac Lake but he says propping up unneeded prisons isn't the answer.

GANGI: The prison system has a purpose in our administration of justice and that should be the focus of the prison system. It shouldn't be twisted into a job program for economically depressed upstate communities.

MANN: Camp Gabriels supporters argue that crime in New York will eventually go up again. At last month's rally, veteran corrections officer Peter Martin predicted that Camp Gabriels will still be here, providing good jobs and ready to house a new crop of inmates.

PETER MARTIN: We will have Camp Gabriels when we get done fighting.

MANN: Those arguments won out three years ago and a similar plan to close prisons was shelved. But with inmate populations still shrinking and New York's budget deficit ballooning, state officials insist that this time Camp Gabriels' gates will close for good.

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

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