New York cuts its prison staffing significantly

Towns with jail-based economies could face trouble, one expert says

September 09, 2001|By David Rohde | David Rohde,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - With the number of inmates in state prisons across the country either stabilizing or dropping after decades of explosive growth, New York appears to be the first state to reduce its prison staffing significantly.

The Department of Correctional Services has frozen hiring at 36 prisons across the state, and hopes to eliminate 614 prison jobs through attrition by March, forcing corrections officers to begin to grapple with something they never imagined possible. New York City's plummeting crime rate might cost them their jobs and deliver a further blow to communities already braving a slowing economy.

The change in New York, where officials project the decrease in the inmate population to be about 9 percent, is threatening the livelihoods of people like Alan Ada.

In the mid-1980s, Ada surveyed his options in Cape Vincent, N.Y., a tiny resort town on the Canadian border, and decided to follow the calling of thousands of other young people upstate.

Children of laid-off paper-mill workers and struggling dairy farmers, they chose a booming field that most never dreamed of, but that offered a steady salary, a pension and health insurance. Like them, Ada became a corrections officer.

New York City quickly proved him wise. Desperate to ease overcrowding in its jails, the city built a $90 million prison in Cape Vincent in 1988 near the banks of the St. Lawrence River and began flying inmates north on twice-weekly jet shuttles nicknamed "Con-Air."

The new prison allowed Ada to get a steady job where he was born and raised, a rare feat in Cape Vincent, a town of 2,400 in the Thousand Islands wilderness that falls silent when the leaves turn and the summer tourists depart.

As the number of inmates in New York soared in the 1990s, the state took over the prison, doubling its population and work force.

Across upstate New York, shrinking rural communities and their state legislators clamored and competed for prisons, a seemingly recession-proof industry.

Running out of inmates

But the boom times are coming to a jarring end.

"Who ever thought crime would go down?" asked Tim Munroe, a correction officer who has worked in the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility for 12 years. "Who ever thought we would run out of inmates?"

Officials in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Texas - states also experiencing declines in their prison population - said they had no plans to reduce their prison work forces.

Experts caution that it is not yet known whether the nationwide prison population is dropping or simply stabilizing. But if the decline becomes a clear trend, hundreds of small, rural prison towns across the country could find themselves confronted by the same unnerving news as Cape Vincent.

"Regions and towns that have based their whole economies on prisons are going to be confronted with some really serious problems," said Michael Jacobson, a professor of criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "This going to be a problem for the governor and Legislature. In the same way towns lobbied to open prisons, they are going to lobby against closing them."

In New York, a continued drop would bring a halt to what has served as a de facto economic development program in the state's isolated corners - prison growth. Assailed by critics as a shortsighted use of state resources and defended by supporters as necessary for public safety, New York's sprawling 70-facility, $2.4-billion- a-year prison system pours hundreds of millions of dollars into the upstate economy each year.

The dependence bred by nearly 30 years of unchecked prison growth is evident in isolated Cape Vincent, where deer nibble on grass near the prison, wild turkeys wander the roads and Canadian radio stations dot the airwaves. Prison employees expressed fear, anger and suspicion about the state's plan and complained of low morale and management problems in the prison. A group of corrections officers met with H. Carl McCall, the state comptroller and a Democratic candidate for governor, last month to express their concerns about cutbacks.

The vast majority of officers interviewed asked not to have their names published because they feared losing their jobs. Correction officers' salaries start at $33,000 and rise to $48,000 in 20 years.

`A political thing'?

"When they say the crime rate is down, it's just a political thing," scoffed Ada, one of several officers who questioned whether the rates are actually dropping. "I think it's just something for the politicians to make them look good."

Ada, who is also the local fire chief, complained that proposed changes in the so-called Rockefeller drug laws would further reduce the prison population, and he was convinced that crime continues unabated downstate. "All you have to do is look at the New York City news," he said.

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