Gov. to make prison closing decisions without task force
|Gov. Andrew Cuomo has decided not to create a task force that would have looked at prison populations. Instead, his administration, with input from lawmakers and other experts, will decide how to eliminate some 3,700 beds in prisons statewide. Photo by AP.|
April 18, 2011Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his staff will decide the best way to consolidate the state's prisons after doing away with the idea of a task force to look at closures.
The governor, who has assembled similar teams to redesign the state's Medicaid program and relieve mandates placed on localities by the state, originally envisioned a 16-member task force, headed by the commissioner of the Corrections Department, to come up with recommendations as to how best eliminate 3,700 open beds from state prisons. But the task force was eliminated in the final budget.
"[In] the Senate, we were very interested in setting up criteria for closures, but we couldn't get support for that, so basically at the end of the day we were in a situation where it was up to the governor to manage the issue," said Sen. James Seward, R-Milford. "We have an assurance of regional balance in whatever he may do and that was the best deal we could negotiate."
The governor's assurance that no one region would be hit too hard by prison closures appears to have been accepted in good faith by most of the legislators involved.
"Gov. Cuomo has the ultimate authority to make these decisions, and we're confident he will make these decisions in the best interest of all people in the state," said Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Chairman Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette. "He has committed to focus on issues across the state and ensure that no one area of the state is more adversely impacted than other areas. … We think in this circumstance he will be fair and judicious in his approach."
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, said there is a level of trust between legislators and the governor concerning the new plan.
"I'm comfortable with the fact that the governor said I'm going to work closely in collaboration with the Legislature. He made that commitment both in public and in private," said Kolb.
"I'm taking the governor at his word," Kolb added, referring to the governor's promise to conduct the process fairly and without "bias to any one region of the state."
Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, pointed out that the governor already had the authority to close prisons, saying "[He] had it before; continues to have it."
"This [task force] would have been advisory. So the point here is let's have direct communications between the executive and the Legislature on the issue. This is something he already had the power to do," said Griffo. "A task force just adds more layers to this without it changing the end result of the governor and his commissioner making the decision."
Griffo notes the Legislature has authorized Cuomo to reduce the notification period for a prison to be closed from 12 months to 60 days in exchange for the governor's creation of economic assistance and job credit programs for communities that do lose prisons.
Although regional balance appears to be the key issue for many, the resale value of facilities and the land they sit on is a key secondary concern. The pricey land occupied by the Sing Sing maximum security facility caused Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer, D-Mamaroneck, and Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, D-Ossining, and local elected officials in Westchester to urge Cuomo to consider closing it and selling it to developers.
Griffo pointed to that as a prime example of the importance of resale value in the decision-making process.
"If you close the facility and you can't do anything with the land, what are you accomplishing? But if you have an area like that where the community says 'take it' and the resale value is significant, that should weigh into the decision-making process," said Griffo.
Nozzolio agreed with the sentiment as far as the wishes of local officials and resale value, but cautioned that selecting Sing Sing for closure was far from a foregone conclusion.
"We did not pro-offer Sing Sing as a facility to close because we need maximum security cell space. There are a number of maximum security facilities that are still double bunked, like Auburn and Attica, and it's just not appropriate to close a maximum facility at this time," Nozzolio said.
Donn Rowe, president of the New York State Corrections and Police Benevolent Association, which represents the state's corrections officers, said the new plan has not altered the group's concerns, including a differing number on the amount of open beds than the governor has indicated.
"We tend to continue to carry our same opinion on the number of beds and the impact it is going to have on the structure of the system. We have concerns on officers being displaced, safety issues in medium security facilities [from overcrowding]," said Rowe, questioning whether the 60-day notice would put a burden of families of corrections officers affected by any closing.
Rowe said his organization expressed its concerns in an initial post-budget conversation with the governor's office and said he appreciates what he sees as the governor's commitment to conducting the process slowly and carefully.
"Those discussions are going on with the governor and we're not a part of that. But again, we are encouraged that he is taking some time looking at it and not haphazardly, coming up with a list as the Department of Corrections has in the past," said Rowe.
Another key issue in looking at what prisons to close is what Griffo called "administrative overhaul," or the bloated salaries of management and inefficient spending of the prisons themselves.
"We want more transparency about the management side … as far as salaries, number of people, what they do everyday. There should be as much emphasis on that," said Kolb, saying the high cost of "managerial overhead positions, as opposed to the rank-and-file corrections officers" are often the cause for a prison's inefficiency.
Although prison consolidation is a hotter topic for upstate and Western New York legislators who have prison-heavy districts, downstate lawmakers have their own priorities for the closures. Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, said keeping prisons near New York City open is important because many of the prisoners come from urban communities.
"We think it is important in the context of reunification [of families], re-entry [into society] and recidivism, to make sure that there continue to be links between the families and the communities, and the folks housed in those prisons," said Parker.
"Particularly, the Brooklyn and New York City caucus is concerned because most of the prisoners come from our communities and a lot of us felt like, for a long time, the state Legislature has used prisons [for] economic development instead of criminal justice," said Parker.
Minority ranker on the Senate corrections committee, Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, echoed Parker and applauded the governor for his commitment to moving the state away from using prisoners as a job creation tool.
"Ultimately it's both about saving money and also making sure we do not use jails, and the prisoners in them, as economic development tools," said Rivera.
At least one Republican senator said he would have preferred a task force to make recommendations on closings.
"I would actually like to have a task force, this way they would have the best knowledge as to what facilities need to be closed," said freshman Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-North Buffalo, adding that he would reach out to Cuomo's staff in order to be involved in discussions. "If he's going to close them himself, I'd like to see some sort of criteria in place."
Parker also said a task force was a good idea, but has no problem with Cuomo taking charge of the process.
"I thought both processes were fine. I'm personally a person who likes more democracy than less democracy, so a task force I thought would have been OK," said Parker. "But the streamlining of the governor doing it himself is going to make the process faster."
There was consensus that Cuomo would be communicative on this issue and take into account the recommendations and concerns of legislators.
"It was agreed that the governor will make those recommendations and decisions with input from the Legislature," said Sen. David Valesky, D-Oneida, echoing sentiments put forward by Nozzolio, Griffo and others. "I think it will be a fair process with plenty of opportunity for input from all interested parties."
Parker was asked if the governor had been open with the Legislature thus far in the process.
"On this issue, yes," he said, with a smile.