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Advocates applaud NY prison closures, but North Country leaders fear economic impact


Two more North Country prisons are set to close in the coming months. Ogdensburg Correctional Facility in St. Lawrence County and Moriah Shock in Essex County are among six state prisons on the chopping block. The prison closures will affect hundreds of jobs in the North Country.

Moriah town supervisor Tom Scozzafava was in a meeting Tuesday morning when someone from town told him the local prison was closing. Scozzafava reached out to someone higher up in government to check if it was true.

“I sent a text to our state senator, Dan Stec and he hadn’t even heard it yet," said Scozzafava.

By 11 a.m., though, the news had been confirmed. The state announced that six prisons are closing down. Scozzafava said he was surprised that Moriah Shock was on that list. It’s one of only two minimum-security facilities in the state that focuses on preparing inmates for life after prison.

“This facility is the shining star when it comes to incarceration because it actually turns the inmates, when they’re released, into productive citizens again," said Scozzafava.

But like most prisons in the North Country, there just aren’t as many people behind bars as there were a few decades ago or even just a few years ago.

Since 2017, the region’s inmate population has been cut in half. Moriah Shock is built for 300 inmates. Today it's 25% full. Ogdensburg is also just 28% occupied.

Scozzafava knows all this, but he also knows how important the facility is for the local economy. Moriah Shock employs 107 people in the area.

“It’s absolutely going to be an economic devastation for this community," said Scozzafava. "It’s a facility that I seriously doubt that they’re going to find any reuse for.”

State Senator Dan Stec, whose district includes Moriah, said he also doubts the state will reinvest in the community after the prison closes.

“The state of New York and the Department of Corrections has a poor track record when it comes to other closures," said Stec. "If someone asks me what the future holds in store for Moriah? You go look at Lyon Mountain and see what happened there because Lyon Mountain looks like a ghost town.”

Lyon Mountain is one of six correctional facilities the state has closed in the North Country the last 12 years. All are still empty.

State Senator Patty Ritchie, whose district includes Ogdensburg, said in a statement she was "deeply disappointed and angered" that the local prison is closing down. Nearly 260 people work at that facility.

But criminal justice advocates are applauding the latest round of prison closures. Janos Marton is the director of Dream Corps Justice, a national prison reform group based in New York. He said closing six more prisons shows that reforms are working.

“This is great news for New York," said Marton. "We have a sprawling, aging prison system that no longer reflects the needs of the state when it comes to how many people are incarcerated and it really tracks with what we’re learning over the past decades.”

The strict Rockefeller drug laws were repealed a little over a decade ago, which is one of the main reasons there are tens of thousands of fewer New Yorkers in prison today.

Both Governors Andrew Cuomo and Kathy Hochul have signed sweeping reforms aimed at changing a system that has disproportionately put Black and Brown New Yorkers behind bars.

Other advocates called on Hochul to do more, including passing the Elder Parole and Fair & Timely Parole bills. "Without these measures, and despite these closures, thousands will continue to needlessly languish behind bars," wrote Jose Saldana, Director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign.

In the North Country, many leaders are focused on the impact these prison closures will have on local, mostly white workers. John Robert represents North Country prison workers for NYSCOPBA, the union for state corrections officers.

“This is a hard pill to swallow, especially us in the union, having to try to explain to everybody that we’re doing what we can," said Roberts. "But it’s tough to fight unless you can find the millions of dollars to save these prisons.”

State officials say closing the 6 facilities around New York will result in $142 million in savings. Roberts and other union leaders are pushing back on this narrative.

"Albany needs to listen to the people the closures directly impact and stop trying to sell us on saving the state money because in the end, the price the community pays each time one of these facilities closes is immeasurable," said Roberts.

For now, Roberts will be meeting with prison workers at Moriah and Ogdensburg. The state says any staff that wants to transfer to another facility will be given that option, though Roberts said a lot of officers have resigned after the prisons in Watertown and Dannemora closed earlier this year.

The six NYS correctional facilities are expected to close down in the next 90 days.

Read more stories from North Country Public Radio