Prison Closings Could Mean Economic Hardship for NY Towns

Nationally, prison rates are higher than ever before – as Total Criminal Defense recently reported, more than one in 100 Americans are currently behind bars, with rates particularly high among minority populations.

But not every state follows the national trend. A report from NPR News highlights a problem in New York that centers on decreasing prison populations and could mean serious problems for many residents of rural upstate communities.

In the 1980s, New York reportedly built several new prisons to accommodate the then-expanding prison population. Many of those were apparently located in the “Little Siberia” region, so called because of both its frigid winter climate and its several prisons. But sources indicate that New York’s prison population has been declining for the past nine years, and Governor Eliot Spitzer wants to close down some of the half-empty facilities upstate.

While closing the prisons may seem like an obvious way to save money and help the state’s several billion dollar deficit, shuttering the correctional facilities could come with unpleasant consequences.

The New York Times notes that, though some methods of treatment and rehabilitation for certain criminals have been proven more cost-effective than incarceration, many people are reluctant to cut back on the prison system. Around the country, as in New York, prisons have evidently become big businesses.

Reports indicate that in the “Little Siberia” region, for example, four facilities are slated for closure in the coming months. But, because of the remoteness of these areas, the local economy is largely dependent on those prisons. Sources show that one prison marked for closure contributes about $40 million to their local economies each year and employs nearly 200 people.

Interestingly, the state apparently made a similar effort a few years ago; at that time, supporters of keeping the prisons open claimed that, though crime rates were falling, they would likely climb again in the near future. But, with crime still dropping off around New York, the same argument likely won’t work this time around.

Activists working to keep the correctional facilities open have allegedly cited overcrowded jails in southern parts of the state as evidence that the prisons are still needed. But those who support closing the facilities have apparently pointed out that the prisons are part of the criminal justice system, not a job program.

So what exactly could the state save from closing down four prisons?

According to the Village Voice, the annual cost of keeping all New York drug offenders in jail is about $500 million dollars. Estimated costs from implementing rehabilitation and reentry programs are apparently much lower.

And, according to the Times, a high number of inmates doesn’t necessarily translate to a lower rate of crime. The relationship between the two, it seems, is still unclear.

With the country teetering on the edge of a recession and legislators fighting to lower crime and increase the nation’s economic strength, the prison debate in New York presents an interesting and delicate mix of difficulties.