Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to close and/or consolidate prisons is of particular concern to the North Country. Prisons have provided many of the better-paying jobs up here in recent decades, and when they're closed, they're likely to sit empty, as Camp Gabriels is doing.
Yes, the state does need to cut, and its inmate population has dropped dramatically over the last decade, faster than the number of prison employees. But on a practical level, every legislator with a prison in his or her district is going to fight closure.
So Gov. Cuomo has done two smart things: He would leave the decision of where to downsize up to a task force that could include legislators, and he would have the state give any community that loses its prison $10 million for economic "transformation."
This $10 million gift could be the key. The tiny community of Gabriels lost more than 100 jobs and ended up with a white elephant when the state pulled stakes in 2009. So far, no one can afford to transform the prison into something profitable. This cash-for-prisons promise could, conceivably, help steer local economies and perhaps the regional economy away from government job dependence. The North Country has long been overly dependent on state employment - we all know it - but we don't have the private resources to break that right now. This money could help lure private industry.
With that said, it's only fair for the state to stop picking on the North Country for multiple prison closings. Franklin County already lost Camp Gabriels prison in 2009, and neighboring Clinton County lost the Lyon Mountain prison this year. Others in Moriah (neighboring Essex County) and Ogdensburg (neighboring St. Lawrence County) were on closure lists but escaped. Now there are hints that Adirondack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook is threatened, right in our backyard and just 13 miles from the shuttered Camp Gabriels.
A map of the state's 67 prisons on the Department of Correctional Services website shows that the North Country does not have more prisons than any other part of the state but that more of its prisons have been targeted for closure. The 13-county downstate area has three DOCS "hubs" with 21 prisons (31 percent of the state's total), none of which has closed. By contrast, DOCS' Clinton Hub in the eastern North Country (it includes Clinton and Franklin counties and the north half of Essex) has already lost two of the nine prisons it had two years ago. If Adirondack Correctional is truly threatened, that would be a third.
The Gabriels and Lyon Mountain prisons are almost half of the four-and-a-half shuttered statewide. Central New York lost Camp Pharsalia, east-central New York lost Camp McGregor, and western New York lost the minimum-security part of Butler Correctional Facility. That's it. Still untouched are huge parts of the state with numerous prisons and - more importantly - more job options for laid-off prison workers.
Losing another prison would hurt our area tremendously and unjustly, since this is a part of the state with fewer options for economic growth than others. The reason DOCS has given for targeting the North Country is that it's farther from most prisoners' families; that ranks criminals as a higher priority than the North Country economy. Yes, visits are good for inmates, but the state should be fair to law-abiding people, too.
Our area should be excluded from this next round of closures and consolidations.