WATERTOWN — Watertown Correction Facility will close early next year, according to the president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association.
Michael B. Powers said he learned of the imminent closure during a phone call Monday morning with state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision personnel.
Watertown Correctional, which is slated to close March 30, is one of three facilities that will shutter. The others include Gowanda Correctional Facility, Erie County, and the Clinton Annex in Dannemora, Clinton County. Mr. Powers confirmed that Clinton Correctional, also in Dannemora, will not close.
Watertown and Gowanda correctional facilities are medium security prisons.
According to Mr. Powers, the facility closures are a result of budget cuts Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called for at the beginning of the year.
Thomas Mailey, spokesman for DOCCS, said in a prepared statement Monday that since Gov. Cuomo took office in 2011, the prison population in New York state has declined by more than 22,000 — a 39% reduction — from 57,229 inmates to 34,842, as of Dec. 21.
The current DOCCS population is at its lowest level in more than 30 years, Mr. Mailey said, with New York “leading the nation with the lowest imprisonment rate of any large state.”
“That’s why DOCCS carefully reviewed the operations at its 52 correctional facilities and identified Watertown and Gowanda Correctional Facilities and the Clinton Annex for closure,” he added.
According to Mr. Mailey, DOCCS based its decision to close the three facilities on a variety of factors, including 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,” he added.
These closures, according to DOCCS, will result in an annual savings of about $89 million and a reduction of about 2,750 beds.
The Watertown facility is an all-male, adult prison and consists of 90 buildings with 51 inside the compound and 39 outside the compound, according to a 2016 National PREA Resource Center audit.
The Watertown facility, 23147 Swan Road, employs 212 NYSCOPBA members, according to Mr. Powers. Across the three facilities slated to close, there are roughly 900 NYSCOPBA members.
According to the same DOCCS statement, the department does not anticipate any layoffs due to the closures.
In a prepared statement Monday, Mr. Powers said the economic impact of this news cannot be understated.
“Upstate communities that maintain prisons rely heavily on revenue generated from those employed in such facilities,” the statement reads.
The Watertown facility employs roughly 400 people total. The same 2016 audit says the facility had at the time 335 staff members, which include security, non-security, medical and treatment providers.
The audit also says the facility is designed to house 670 offenders, and as of October 2016, housed 526. Offenders at the time ranged in age from 19 to 77.
According to a Freedom of Information Law request from 2019, Watertown Correctional inmate population has been on a slight decline since 2016. As of Dec. 31, 2016, 545 inmates were housed at the facility; 513 as of Dec. 31, 2017; 475 as of Dec. 31, 2018; and 466 as of May 1, 2019.
Watertown Correctional opened in 1982 and was converted into a prison from a United States Air Force facility.
The Gowanda facility, according to another PREA audit from 2016, had a total of 746 staff members at the time. The facility’s population also at that time was 1,490 inmates, but the prison can house a total of 1,755. Offenders at the time ranged in age from 18 to 81.
Information about the Clinton Annex facility prison population was not immediately available.
Of the NYSCOPBA members, Mr. Powers said they will have the opportunity to apply for a transfer to another “hub” facility in order to avoid having to uproot their lives and families.
Included in the Watertown hub is Cape Vincent, Gouverneur, Riverview and Ogdensburg correctional facilities.
“This announcement three days before Christmas is inconsiderate and disingenuous,” Mr. Powers said when reached Monday.
Corrections officers, who are considered essential workers, have gone to work every day during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Powers said, again making his point that the announcement is inconsiderate so close to the Christmas holiday.
“Can Governor Cuomo look our members in the face and say that, despite prison violence at near record levels, closing prisons is what’s best and will produce a safer environment?” he said in a prepared statement issued later Monday on behalf of NYSCOPBA.
Upon hearing the news Monday, Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, who was recently named to the Assembly’s Corrections Committee, issued a statement echoing Mr. Powers’ message.
“The Governor’s decision to close the Watertown Correctional Facility is an incredibly poor decision, especially this close to the Christmas Holiday,” Mr. Walczyk said. “No person who literally risks their life to protect New Yorkers should have this news handed down to them by someone running state government by fiat.”
Mr. Walczyk said if Gov. Cuomo wants to downsize, “he should be looking downstate.”
“I’ll stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our brave North Country COs and other elected officials to push back against this shortsighted decision,” he added. “Governor Cuomo just gave North Country families a lump of coal. He should be ashamed.”
Representative Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville; state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton; and Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River; joined fellow Republicans on Monday in voicing their disapproval of the governor’s decision to close the three facilities.
In a prepared statement, Rep. Stefanik, who has been a consistent critic of Gov. Cuomo’s, said Monday’s announcement was yet another “misguided attempt to weaken our law enforcement.”
“I am deeply opposed to the Governor’s proposed closures,” she added. “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.”
Sen. Ritchie said the announcement is a “slap in the face” to the workers at these facilities.
“Every day, the Governor has gone on TV, pontificating about how people are suffering due to this unprecedented pandemic,” Sen. Ritchie said. “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.”
Mr. Blankenbush is questioning the closure of Watertown Correctional, citing that the facility is a job creator for many in the region.
“The men and women who work at the correctional facility need answers,” Mr. Blankenbush said. “It is my hope that the governor re-evaluates this decision and does not bring even more economic turmoil to North Country residents.”