Republican state lawmakers on Tuesday denounced Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to close the Gowanda Correctional Facility early next year, saying it will hurt both the prison’s workers and surrounding communities.
Cuomo was given the power in this year’s state budget to close an unspecified number of prisons, so long as he gives the state Legislature 90 days’ notice. On Monday, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced three state prisons, including the Gowanda Correctional Facility, will shut down by March 30. The three closures are expected to save approximately $89 million, the agency said.
Republican state legislators, as well as union representatives, gathered outside the prison on Tuesday to criticize the closing. State Sen. Minority Leader Robert Ortt (R-Tonawanda) called the announcement, just four days before Christmas Day, “especially cruel.”
“The closure of this correctional facility will devastate the local community, cost Western New York hundreds of jobs, and will force families to uproot and relocate during what is already a very challenging time,” Ortt said in a statement. “The brave men and women who show up every day to ensure the protection of New York’s residents deserve better than this.”
The prison employs approximately 600 people and is the largest employer in the area, according to State Sen. George Borrello (R-Sunset Bay). He told WBFO that while employees will be eligible to transfer elsewhere in the state prison system, they’ll still have to leave the area.
“They're going to be offered jobs in some cases that are places far away, they're going to have to uproot their families and leave their community that they live in,” he said. “The Lakeview [Shock Correctional Facility] is about a 45-minute drive from Gowanda through back roads. In the middle of winter, that’s not exactly the safest drive.”
The Gowanda prison’s average daily population last year was 1,335 inmates, according to an audit. That’s about four hundred inmates below its full capacity. The state’s overall prison population of nearly 35,000 is its lowest in more than 30 years.
But Borrello said that’s only because of a concerted effort by Cuomo, who has overseen a prison population decline of 39% and the closure of 17 prisons since he took office in 2011.
“That's the whole purpose of bail reform, that’s the whole purpose of relaxing so many standards when it comes to who is incarcerated and for how long,” he said. “This has been an agenda that has not made us safer. If you could say we reduced the prison population because less people are committing crimes, that's one thing. But clearly, that's not the case, when you see double digit increases in almost every sector, when it comes to crime in New York state.”
Republicans’ criticism of Cuomo’s de-incarceration tactics came the same day as criminal justice reform advocates called on Cuomo to grant clemency to more prisoners, saying he has not released enough inmates. They’re currently pushing for a package of bills that would reform the state prison system.
Asked how else the state should reduce its potentially $15 billion budget deficit, Borrello said it could start by cutting the $100 million set aside for campaign finance, or the nearly half-billion dollars set aside for film production tax credits.
“There's plenty of places to save money before we start impacting the health and safety of New Yorkers,” he said.
Cuomo also could have at least engaged local officials and stakeholders before making his decision, Borrello added.
“Instead, he just pulled the ripcord here four days before Christmas,” he said, “and that's just irresponsible and cold-hearted.”