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Fighting to save their jobs: (l-r) corrections officers Hall and Peck.

PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle

From Hard Time to Hard Times

As the state prepares to close four prisons, Hudson and Columbia County come together to fight to keep theirs open

By Chet Hardin

 

Leonard Hall is trying to save his community.

And his phones ring nonstop.

“I’ve called him on his home phone before and it’s busy, so I call him on his cell phone,” says Brad Peck, “and it’s busy.”

Funny, but it’s not a joke. As though on cue, Hall’s cell phone begins ringing. Swiping the phone up off his dining room table, he asks the person on his land line to hang on and answers the new call.

“I’m in the middle of an interview right now,” he says.

Hall, like Peck, is a corrections officer at Hudson Correctional Facility and also a union steward. Both men have made careers out of service with New York State Department of Correctional Services. Hall has 20 years of experience, has worked at nine prisons, he says, “maxes, mediums, minimums, camps.” He’s seen the whole system.

Peck, a Hudson native, has more than a decade of experience and says he is only months away from making sergeant. He spent his first five years—one at Sing Sing—building the seniority within the system that would bring him back to his hometown. He drives 10 minutes to get to work. That’s shorter then his old drive just to get the carpool lot.

Now, at the time in their lives when they want to settle down and reap the benefits of hard work and loyalty, and enjoy the thousands of dollars and hours they have invested into their homes and community, they find themselves instead at the nucleus of union workers, local politicians, and civic leaders engaged in a propaganda battle to force the New York State Department of Correctional Services to reconsider its proposed closure of the prison, slated for the beginning of ’09.

The odds are against them.

In January, DOCS Commissioner Brian Fischer announced that, in order for the department to comply with a recent slate of legislated and court-ordered mandates, four state prisons (three minimum-security camps and Hudson, a medium-security facility) would have to be shuttered. Fischer estimated the closure of the prisons would save the state roughly $73.5 million over two years. Within the same amount of time, the department expects to spend around $162 million hiring and training 375 new staff, building new facilities, and retrofitting existing spaces to provide extensive treatment for mentally ill inmates and incarcerated sex offenders, according to DOCS literature.

Fischer assured that no DOCS worker would be laid off as a result. Instead, they would be transferred to nearby facilities.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer heralded the closures as a sign of New York’s decreasing prison population—18 percent since 1999—and boasted of a fiscal savings that would be funneled into education and health care.

“What the governor is saying and what the commissioner of corrections are saying are two different things,” says Brian Shanagher, executive vice president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association. NYSCOPBA represents about 23,000 people in law enforcement, 21,000 of whom are corrections officers or sergeants, two of which are Peck and Hall.

“The governor has, on many occasions, made reference to that $70 million savings,” Shanagher says. “Because the inmate population is going down, there are great vacancies in the prison system, and instead of running half-filled prisons, we should close ’em down and use the money in better areas such as education and health care. I have heard him say that four separate times.” Yet, as the commissioner has detailed, the numbers don’t add up to a savings; they add up to a large increase in cost.

But that’s not, he says, what you are hearing from the governor.

Since Fischer’s announcement, Hall, Peck, and others in the community have gathered 6,000 signatures on a petition railing against the “arbitrary decision” to close the prison, calling on the commissioner to take into consideration the “negative impact to the surrounding community, businesses, and economy” that the closure will have on the city of Hudson and Columbia County.

“If we had had more time, we could of doubled that” number of signatures, Hall says. “But we only have a small window of time.” The budget deadline of April 1 is quickly approaching, and once the budget is passed, it is a done deal. “We are believing we have a fifty-fifty shot right now.”

“Today’s a big day,” Peck offers. It’s Feb. 26, the day of the special election in the 48th state Senate district. With the balance of the Senate teetering toward Democratic control for the first time in decades, the Republican’s two-seat majority is vulnerable but immensely valuable to Peck.

“That’s going to be the hinge,” he says. “The Senate majority is very pro-corrections.”

The Republicans will fight to keep the prison open, Hall agrees.

“Absolutely.”

“In the best of all possible worlds prisons would be unnecessary,” wrote Ned Depew in a Jan. 22 Register-Star op-ed. He was commenting on the announced closure of the four prisons, and no doubt echoed what many people believe about prisons and the people who work them. No sane person, he argued, could see the closure of four prisons as a bad thing. Especially now, when the United States has an incarceration rate of 1 percent of its population, the highest per-capita rate in the world.

“We should be rejoicing over the fact that a declining crime rate . . . is leading to a shrinking prison population,” he wrote of New York state. The state does appear to be bucking national trends. At a time when experts predict an uninterrupted growth in the national prison population, New York state is predicting an uninterrupted decline.

“Asking the government (taxpayers) to continue to bear the enormous and unnecessary cost of unneeded prisons in order to benefit a small group of workers is ridiculous,” Depew wrote. Instead, he would like to see the money invested in “productive fields” such as alternative energy, information technology, and so on. Unemployed prison guards can be retrained for other careers.

“Being a prison guard,” he wrote, “is the very definition of a dead-end job.”

“There is a negative connotation that is associated with prisons, and the people that we house at prisons,” Hall admits. “All the public thinks about prisons is negative: inmates, criminals—negative. And the people that work there, they must be negative, too. Them hacks, them turnkeys, them screws. But we all have lives; we work our jobs and then come home and do the things that people do.”

“We are a necessary evil,” Hall says. “We don’t make crime, and we don’t make laws. If the government says that someone gets sent away for 10 years for committing a crime, somebody has got to watch him, and that somebody is us.”

And what people like Depew don’t seem to understand, he says, is that the prison and its 277 employees are a vital economic engine. There are few employers in Columbia County with greater payrolls than the prison’s $14.7 million. The average prison employee makes $52,000 a year. They are the ones who go out for dinner, buy new TVs and cars, and pay mortgages.

According to Hudson Mayor Richard Scalera, you simply are not going to replace those jobs.

A former prison employee, Scalera spent 28 years working for DOCS. “Hudson is a fragile economy,” he says, “of haves and have-nots.”

Over the past decade, there has been an influx of the affluent, of high-end antique stores and galleries, and upscale restaurants lining Warren Street. And yet, only a block away, neighborhoods remain crowded with low-income apartments and the working poor. There is a small middle class in the city, he says, confined to just a couple of neighborhoods.

The decision to close the prison, he says, “came out of nowhere.” And the timing couldn’t have been worse. It will hit this community of 8,000 people hard.

Three years ago, the city had to spend $10 million on a water-treatment plant.

“Now, we’ve just been told that we have a sewage problem,” Scalera says, “and the price tag on that, just told to me last week, is a minimum $8 million.”

Hudson’s yearly general-fund budget is only $9 million, a third of which is spent solely on the police department. To close any budgetary gaps, the mayor says, he seeks grants and earmarks from lawmakers. Losing the city’s largest water customer, Hudson Correctional at $250,000 a year, isn’t going make those gaps any easier to shrink.

“I don’t wanna say that one facility ought to close over another facility,” he says, “but I don’t understand how you can make a yearlong decision to put the hammer down on our facility without taking economic impact into consideration.”

“How did they choose from the 30-plus corrections facilities that are medium security in nature?” he asks. “How did they throw a dart and pick Hudson?”

Scalera worries about the day when those 277 well-paid employees are faced with the decision of staying in Columbia County and commuting to a new facility or selling their homes, and packing up their tax dollars and leaving.

“Because the governor and commissioner are inaccurate when they say that the 277 employees will be given jobs locally,” he says. “When you look at the Department of Corrections map, you will see that there are only two other facilities nearby Hudson, and those are Coxsackie and Green Haven. They are already between 30 to 35 officers overstaffed.”

Hall and Peck agree. Few of their coworkers are going to find work at the nearest prisons. Many of them have already begun to question whether they will be able to stay in their communities when faced the reality of a two-hour daily commute. The lucky ones are the ones who can retire.

Which describes a considerable amount of the COs at Hudson. Peck guesses that a third of the jail’s employees could retire today. “I look at that as an asset and say, ‘Let’s keep ’em. Let’s keep ’em ’cause they are experienced and help the system work better.’ ”

Hall says, “The department doesn’t look at them as though they are an asset.”

In fact, Hall suspects that this could be a large part of the answer to Scalera’s question: Why Hudson? With such a high concentration of retirement-age employees, it was perhaps seen by DCOS as a less disruptive facility to close.

The average person working at Hudson has 23 or 24 years on the job, Shanagher says. “The state needs to pay for something, and they are going to take it out of the pockets of the people who have worked the longest in the system?”

To understand what’s going on with Hudson, and the other three facilities, one only has to look at the numbers, says Erik Kriss, director of Public Information at DOCS.

“DOCS is an agency more or less dictated by the numbers,” Kriss says. The decision to close Hudson was one made in light of two major considerations: the changing prison population and budgetary constrictions. He points to the commissioner’s testimony before the Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims, Crime, and Correction from Jan. 30.

“I am responsible for 95,000 employees and prisoners spread out over 70 facilities,” Fischer said, “and the department’s budget has reached the $3 billion mark to the taxpayers of New York. . . . 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 fiscal problems facing the state, I made the decisions . . . understanding the hardships those decisions would bring.”

Last year, radical shifts in policy were adopted by the state in its treatment of mentally ill prison inmates. As part of its settlement in a lawsuit brought by Disability Advocates Inc., the state agreed to spend millions of dollars providing extra treatment and supervision for the most severely mentally ill.

“DOCS had a difficult population to serve, and they didn’t have the proper tools and treatment modalities to do it, and now they will,” says Cliff Zucker, the executive director of Disability Advocates Inc.

One of the stipulations of the lawsuit is that DOCS, according to Fischer, will be required “to hire new employees, create new secure units and build new facilities or convert existing space to provide out-of-cell treatment and programming for mentally ill inmates.” This means, according to Shanagher, that inmates with mental-health issues must be taken out of the special housing units—23-hour lockdown cells used to segregate highly disruptive inmates from the general population—and put into another segregated area for therapeutic purposes.

“Which is fine,” says Shanagher, but he claims that the additional programs to remove these prisoners—which currently number roughly 270 statewide—is going to cost more than $200 million over the next two years.

“The $200 million isn’t being used to make these 270 inmates productive citizens upon release. It’s to pacify them during the time they are to be segregated from the general population,” he says.

The mentally ill inmates who wind up in a SHU, he argues, “are not going to become productive members of society. If they have mental-health issues and they wound up in an SHU, chances are they probably ate someone, killed someone or raped someone.”

“To get in an SHU, [an inmate] has to commit an act inside the prison that would rise to the level of felony out on the street. I don’t know why it is such a big shock to people that they would get segregated from the rest of the prison population that is trying to do the right thing. Out on the streets, they would put them in jail. In prison, we have an area where we put inmates who earn their way into segregation.”

“Two hundred and seventy inmates and $200 million,” Shanagher exclaims, “They are like million-dollar babies!”

The union’s seeming about-face in support of the new measures surprises Zucker; the union had expressed its support in the past. Late last year, in fact, the state Legislature passed the SHU Exclusion Bill, which, according to DOCS, “prohibits most seriously mentally ill inmates from being housed in segregated confinement because of disciplinary problems and adds significantly to staff and service requirements already mandated by the Disability Advocates settlement.”

“There are all sorts of prisoners with all sorts of mental illnesses who are in prison for all sorts of reasons,” Zucker says. “What they share is they are all mentally ill, and they were being confined under barbaric conditions. What the bill and the settlement do is try to provide for humane treatment, while at the same time provide for security for these prisoners, the other prisoners and the public. There was tremendous support for this bill.”

It may be true that it is difficult to treat some of these inmates, says Nina Loewenstein, Disability Advocates’ head counsel on its lawsuit. There are myriad reasons why these inmates have found themselves in these SHUs. “There are all sorts of treatments that need to be available to inmates.” Everyone understood that to confine the mentally ill to SHUs for years was terribly destructive. There was overwhelming, broad consensus for the bill.

“Otherwise,” Zucker adds, “it wouldn’t have gotten passed.”

Hudson is a community in chaos, says Amanda DeWald. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a community in chaos before?” she asks. There is a generalized panic about the future, and so many people feel left completely out of the equation. Scalera and Columbia County officials, frantic to convince the state of the devastating effects of shuttering Hudson Correctional Facility, hired DeWald to carry out an economic-impact study that can be presented to the Legislature before the April budget deadline.

“There are many people who have, since the announcement, called for an independent economic-impact study,” she says. U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-Greenport), state Sen. Steve Saland (R-Poughkeepsie), Assemblyman Marc Molinaro (R-Tivoli), editorial pages, and civic leaders have all asked the question, “Where did this decision come from?”

“We’re just trying to do what we can to take an honest look,” DeWald says. “We want to be involved. The community itself, the employees, want to be involved in the discussion about it. And the main reason of the study is to show why it would be wise to include us, because we are the ones who are going to have to live through this.”

She is getting help from the chamber of commerce, the community college, workforce development agencies, individual agencies, the unions of employees inside the prison, and local politicians. And she is racing the clock. She is trying to do the work of a dozen people with months of lead time, synthesizing the lives of ten of thousands of people into easily digested data in just weeks.

“That is the whole gist,” Hall says. “A fair, honest assessment of the whole system was not done. They didn’t do a community-impact study. They didn’t find out the cost effectiveness of all the jails. It wasn’t transparent. When you are affecting thousands of people’s lives, you just can’t come out with an announcement and say, ‘You’re done.’ ”

“We understand the state government has a responsibility to the taxpayer, and as a union, as employees we are more than willing to cooperate with any open and honest assessment of the system, but we don’t feel that was done,” Hall says.

DeWald plans to hand-deliver copies of her study to legislators before the budget deadline, and NYSCOPBA plans to hold a rally in Albany on March 31.

DOCS Commissioner Fischer has stated that the department will close the facilities regardless of what the Legislature decides.

chardin@metroland.net


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