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State to close Watertown prison

State Sen. Patty Ritchie

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration is closing three state prisons, including the Watertown Correctional Facility. The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) said the decision to shut down Gowanda Correctional Facility, Watertown Correctional Facility, and the Annex at Clinton Correctional Facility is the culmination of years of progressive criminal justice reforms that have reduced the state’s inmate population to its lowest level in 30 years.

"Since Governor Cuomo took office in 2011, the prison population has declined by more than 22,000 - a 39% reduction - from 57,229 to 34,842 people, as of December 21, 2020," said DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey. "That’s why DOCCS carefully reviewed the operations at its 52 correctional facilities and identified Watertown and Gowanda Correctional Facilities and the Clinton Annex for closure. While conducting the review, DOCCS based the decision on a variety of factors, including but not limited to physical infrastructure, program offerings, facility security level, specialized medical and mental health services, other facilities in the area to minimize the impact to staff, potential reuse options and areas of the State where prior closures have occurred in order to minimize the impact to communities."

The move is expected to save taxpayers $89 million annually, but many officials point out that those savings come at a cost hundreds of jobs, including 400 in Watertown. Michael Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, criticized the decision and especially the timing.

"Here we are four days before Christmas and I have 900 sworn officers of the law - essential employees - that are going to have their whole worlds turned upside down," Powers said. "I mean we're in a pandemic, yet his [Cuomo's] answers are to move inmates into existing facilities and shutter other ones, creating a whirlwind issue of violence and not only that but not proper social distancing."

Cuomo was given the authority to close state prisons in last year's budget so long as he gave at least 90 days' notice, a power that expires at the end of March. The closure process will begin immediately, however, area representatives are not ready to accept the decision yet. Watertown's State Sen. Patty Ritchie and Assemblyman Mark Walcyzk said they will fight it. 

"During this time when the state’s economy is hanging by a thread, instead of applying some common sense by cutting spending and government programs, one person, who thrust this power onto himself, has made the decision to put countless people out of work and even more criminals back on the streets," Walczyk said in a statement. "The Watertown Correctional Facility is one of the more efficient and modern in the state’s system.  If the Governor really wants to downsize, he should be looking downstate.  Those facilities have more real estate value and cost way more to operate."

Both the state and police unions are vowing to help transfer impacted employees to vacant positions at other correctional facilities within the state. 

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.