Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

TESTIMONY OF
BRIAN FISCHER, COMMISSIONER
NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONAL SERVICES

Before
SENATE STANDING COMMITTEE ON
CRIME VICTIMS, CRIME AND CORRECTION
JANUARY 30, 2008

Prison Closures

Introduction

The decision to close correctional facilities was not made lightly, and as expected, it has raised many questions. The most obvious ones are:

Why these facilities?
Could we not save money in other ways?
Can we maintain the community crews that provide labor to municipalities and not-for-profit organizations?
What will happen to the facilities after they are closed?
What can the local communities expect in terms of assistance?

Before I address these issues, allow me to put the situation into context.

I am responsible for approximately 95,000 employees and prisoners spread out over 70 facilities across the state, and the Department’s budget has reached the $3 billion mark to the taxpayers of New York.

As the Commissioner, I must be concerned with the safety and security of everyone, while being a realistic fiscal manager. There are limits to our funding and limits to our staffing.

Given the decrease of more than 9,000 inmates in the past eight years, the continued decline projected for the future, and the budget needed to cover what is mandated of the Department, along with the reality of the fiscal problems facing the State, I made the decisions I know are necessary, understanding that I could not avoid the hardships those decisions would bring.

Realities Facing the Department:

  1. a 13 percent overall decrease in the number of inmates since 1999.
  2. an 18 percent decrease in medium security inmates.
  3. a 47 percent decrease in minimum security inmates.
  4. an 18 percent increase in maximum security inmates.

I should stress that while original projections for this Fiscal Year estimated that there would be about 62,800 inmates under custody by March 31, 2008, we are already at 62,250 today, 550 fewer than expected. Our projected census as of March 31, 2009, was set at 62,200 and it is clear even today that we will be significantly lower than that.

Shifting Priorities:

The Department has changed, both in the demographics of our inmates and in the responsibilities we must fulfill. We must:

  1. provide 1,600 program slots for all 8,000+ mentally ill inmates, including highly structured and staff intensive units for mentally ill inmates who must be segregated from the general inmate population as required by a court settlement and the new SHU-Exclusion statute.
  2. provide 1,200 program slots to deliver services to the 6,000 sex offenders as required by the Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act of 2007.
  3. add new re-entry programs at facilities that can be tied into County Re-Entry Task Force Committees to deal better with the 28,000+ inmates that will be released in the coming year.
  4. add a new Parole re-entry program with the Division of Parole and the Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services to keep Parolees in the community rather than returning them to long-term prison stays, thereby changing the pattern of recycling offenders through the judicial and correctional systems.

Why These Facilities:

We began the process by looking at which facilities could not be closed given their size, program elements and inmate population. We also looked at the reasons some facilities were previously identified for closure. In the end, we carefully considered the following factors:

  1. Location
    • We looked for facilities in close proximity to other facilities to make transfers easier for staff, and enabling employees at the facilities slated for closure to transfer without having to relocate where possible.
    • We did not want to close more than one facility in any one geographical area.
  2. Cost
    • Underutilized facilities are more costly in comparison to fully utilized ones.
  3. Functionality
    • We need to maintain multi-disciplinary facilities, whereas facilities with limited functions were more suitable for closure.
    • Key elements in our consideration relate to treatment and scope of services provided.
  4. Capital Construction
    • We considered future capital improvement needs.
  5. Agency Impact
    • We considered overall impact to agency operations.
    • We considered the ability to relocate inmates.

Two of the three correctional camps we selected were identified in past years for closure � Pharsalia and McGregor. We added the third camp, Gabriels, because the number of camp-eligible inmates has continued to decline and the decline is projected to continue.

We arrived at the choice of Hudson, understanding the impact its closing would have on the local community, comparing it with other small medium correctional facilities. Hudson’s bed capacity (422) is lower than that of other medium security facilities, making the transfer of inmates easier from the agency’s point of view. Hudson’s need for capital improvements – nearly $21.8 million over the next five years - was also a major consideration, particularly in comparison to other facilities.

Alternatives to Saving Money:

The cost of the Department is driven by several factors: the number of inmates, the type of services that must be provided and the number of employees needed to program inmates and maintain safe and secure facilities. It is the decrease in the number of inmates in the system that allows for savings to be generated by closure and the redeployment of staff.

Over the years, the Department has saved money by “down sizing” the number of beds needed to handle the inmate population. As a result, there are many dormitories in minimum security facilities that are empty and not staffed. To move inmates into such unstaffed units would result in an increase in cost, not a savings. By closing the facilities we have selected, we will move inmates to dormitories where vacancies already exist in units already properly staffed.

Community Crews:

While some communities close to a correctional facility have enjoyed the work done by inmate community crews at no cost to the municipalities, there has been a cost to the taxpayers of New York. Community crews cost, on average, up to $60,000 per year. Those costs have continued to rise as staff salaries, equipment and gasoline costs have increased.

The work done by every community crew operating out of a facility designated for closure is being reviewed. Where possible, and keeping cost in mind, community crews will be relocated to neighboring facilities so some work can continue. We must keep in mind, however, that the community crews were never meant to replace work done by local communities, but merely to assist. While some communities have clearly profited by having community crews in their area, there are many more communities who have never been provided such assistance.

Re-Use of Facilities:

Key to the statute that details how the agency can close a facility is the requirement that alternative uses for each facility are to be considered. To that end, the Department will work closely with the State Department of Economic Development, as well as local representatives, to consider how the facilities might be used for purposes other than correctional facilities. One of the primary reasons for publicly announcing the closures a year in advance was to reach out to other agencies and local groups to begin the process of evaluating what the land and structures might be used for in the future.