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State to close Watertown Correctional Facility in 2021

Updated: Dec. 21, 2020 at 5:37 PM EST
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WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - The State Department of Corrections will close Watertown Correctional Facility on March 30, 2021.

NYSCOPBA (New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association ) President Mike Powers tells 7 News he received word of the closure during a conference call with state officials Monday morning. Two other prisons will be closed next year, including Gowanda Correctional Facility in Erie County and the Clinton Annex Facility in Dannemora.

Powers the town of Watertown prison employs about 400 workers, including 212 NYSCOPBA members.

“Just the mere fact that they did this three days before Christmas is just disingenuous and inconsiderate. To me, it’s in bad taste and I think it’s shortsighted,” said Powers.

A provision in the state budget gives Governor Andrew Cuomo the ability to close prisons with 90-day notice.

According to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the decision was made after reviewing New York’s 52 correctional facilities.

“DOCCS based the decision on a variety of factors, including but not limited to physical infrastructure, program offerings, facility security level, specialized medical and mental health services, other facilities in the area to minimize the impact to staff, potential reuse options and areas of the State where prior closures have occurred in order to minimize the impact to communities. With the closure of these two facilities and the Clinton-Annex, we will be able to absorb the incarcerated population into vacant beds available at other institutions,” said DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey.

According to the state, the current DOCCS population is at its lowest level in more than 30 years, with New York leading the nation with the lowest imprisonment rate of any large state. Since 2011, the prison population has declined by more than 22,000 inmates.

DOCCS said its most recent inmate data from September showed the Watertown Correctional Facility was operating at 44 percent capacity - having 298 prisoners with room for 670.

The closures of the three facilities will save the state approximately $89 million a year.

“DOCCS will work closely with the various bargaining units to provide staff opportunities for priority placement via voluntary transfers and will receive priority in terms of employment at other facilities or other state agencies as a result of the formal Civil Service process that is followed with the closure of a correctional facility. DOCCS does not anticipate any layoffs due to these closures,” said Mailey.

He said the state will work to re-use the closed facilities for another purpose.

North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R. - 21st District) said she’s working with other elected officials to fight the closure of Watertown Correctional Facility and Clinton Annex Facility.

She issued the following statement:

“In his latest misguided attempt to weaken our law enforcement and make New York less safe, Governor Cuomo is pulling the rug out from our correction officers, their families, and our North Country communities after an already challenging year. First, the Governor passed harmful bail reform laws that released violent criminals back onto the streets causing the crime rates across our state to skyrocket. Instead of listening to our corrections officers and law enforcement leaders, Governor Cuomo has repeatedly ignored their concerns regarding the spread of COVID through our prisons and only relented after widespread bipartisan outcry. Now, he is taking it a step further in deciding to permanently close these two critical facilities that have the capacity to distance prisoners and staff and lower the risk of COVID-19 exposure. I am deeply opposed to the Governor’s proposed closures. Our brave correction officers are an essential part of our Upstate law enforcement community. The timing of this announcement could not be worse right before the holidays and as crime rates in the state are on the rise and COVID-19 continues to spread throughout our prisons. Our correction officers have risked their health and personal safety throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. I am now calling on the Governor to immediately reverse this action and keep our corrections officers, their families, and our communities safe by keeping these essential facilities open.”

Assemblyman Mark Walczyk (R. - 116th District) sent this statement:

“During this time when the state’s economy is hanging by a thread, instead of applying some common sense by cutting spending and government programs, one person, who thrust this power onto himself, has made the decision to put countless people out of work and even more criminals back on the streets. The Governor alone made this decision. The Watertown Correctional Facility is one of the more efficient and modern in the state’s system. If the Governor really wants to downsize, he should be looking downstate. Those facilities have more real estate value and cost way more to operate. After just being named to the Assembly’s Corrections Committee, I’ll stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our brave North Country COs and other elected officials to push back against this shortsighted decision. Governor Cuomo just gave North Country families a lump of coal. He should be ashamed.”

Senator Patty Ritchie (R. - 48th District) had this to say:

I find it unacceptable and utterly despicable that the Governor would announce just four days before Christmas that Watertown Correctional Facility will close. Simply put, this is a slap in the face to the dedicated men and women who work in these facilities, as well as their families. Every day, the Governor has gone on TV, pontificating about how people are suffering due to this unprecedented pandemic. With this announcement, he’s kicking them when they’re down and only adding to the stress and anguish so many people have been experiencing for almost a year now. Our correctional officers and other prison staff members have always had difficult, dangerous jobs but in recent months, the stakes have been even higher. Ever since the pandemic began, they have selflessly put their health and safety in harm’s way to do their jobs and return home to their families at the end of their shifts, hoping that they wouldn’t be passing on the virus to their loved ones. Albany continues to preach about protecting the health and safety of frontline workers by limiting contact and practicing social distancing. As the pandemic rages on and cases rise across the state, I fail to see the logic in closing prisons and in turn, packing more inmates and staff in fewer facilities. It’s no secret that due to New York’s disastrous new bail reform laws, there are fewer inmates in our prisons. The message to Albany is simple—my North Country colleagues and I did not support Albany’s disastrous bail reform measures that are putting violent repeat offenders back out on the streets. Radical left, downstate lawmakers did. If you are looking to close prisons, look there first. Instead though, Albany again looks to rip something away from the North Country, a place where in the past, the state has closed facilities and never looked back, leaving them to languish in disrepair and become eyesores. In true Albany fashion, they go against all common sense by opting to close a facility where there is little potential for repurposing—instead of facilities downstate, many of which sit on prime real estate that could easily be put back into productive use. I hear all the time about how these same downstate facilities have issues with staff not showing up to work or numerous violent incidents taking place inside prison walls. That’s not the case at Watertown Correctional, where reliable people come to work, they do their jobs and the prison is run well, without frequent altercations. To close a facility filled with hardworking people that operates smoothly, again defies all logic—but that’s Albany for you. To say that slating Watertown Correctional Facility for closure is a bad decision would be an understatement. We know though, that this decision would not have been made without Governor Cuomo’s blessing. If the Governor wants to show once and for all that he cares about the North Country and its people, he will stop this closure. In the days to come, I am committed to fighting alongside the roughly 400 Watertown Correctional employees, their families and my fellow representatives to make the Governor realize this decision needs to be reversed.

New York State Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy issued this statement:

“Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that he is closing three state prisons and killing thousands of jobs four days before Christmas is as cold-hearted and miserly as you can get. The hardworking corrections officers and jail employees have been underappreciated and disrespected when they should be receiving compassion and gratitude for working incredibly difficult jobs under horrible conditions. First, he withheld critical PPE from them and now he is ruining their families’ Christmas and putting them on unemployment lines in areas where his policies have crushed local economies giving the displaced workforce very few opportunities. Andrew Cuomo deserves an Emmy after all--for his real-life portrayal of Ebeneezer Scrooge, but unlike Scrooge, there is no redemption for his destruction of New Yorkers’ lives.”

This is a developing story. We’ll update throughout the day.

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