WATERTOWN — A group met in Public Square on Saturday afternoon to protest the upcoming closure of Watertown Correctional Facility, which is scheduled to shut down at the end of March.
The demonstrators displayed signs for the honking cars passing by and talked about what the closure means for the employees at the facility and their families.
Among them was Watertown corrections officer Tom Dier. He will be traveling over the next few days to the homes of a few of his coworkers — who are in quarantine because they got COVID-19, apparently from the prison where they work — to pick up the paperwork they need to submit to stay employed.
Mr. Dier, one of many active corrections officers at the protest, said many of his coworkers are going to have to work at the facilities in Cape Vincent or Gouverneur — basically starting over with just their foot in the door again.
The paperwork to make that transfer is due by next week, but with an increase in COVID cases recently, some Watertown corrections officers are stuck at home after having tested positive. He said they tested positive apparently after having been exposed in the jail.
It was announced on Dec. 21 that Watertown Correctional, along with two other correctional facilities in the state — Gowanda Correctional Facility, Erie County, and the Clinton Annex in Dannemora, Clinton County — will be closing on March 30. The order was handed down by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
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 Dry Hill prison employs roughly 400 people total, 212 of whom are New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association members. The same 2016 audit says the facility had at the time 335 staff members, which include security, non-security, medical and treatment providers.
It’s hard to say how many of the employees will commute to their new jobs or just move, Mr. Dier said, but it’s likely a lot of the newer officers will be placed downstate. For Ken Aubin, a corrections officer in Watertown whose family is in the area, he’ll be moving to the Utica hub, he said.
“There’s no point in traveling for the next 11 or 12 years,” he said.
Michael B. Powers, president of NYSCOPBA, previously said of the 212 union members in Watertown, 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.
Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, was mingling with protesters in a sweatshirt and mask.
“The governor is coming up against a serious budget deficit, and cuts are going to be made,” he said. “They need to be made smartly. That doesn’t mean closing your most efficient facilities. It doesn’t mean closing the ones that are least expensive to run.”
The closures of Watertown, Gowanda and Clinton Annex, according to state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, will result in an annual savings of about $89 million and a reduction of about 2,750 beds.
In lieu of the governor reversing his order to close the facility, Assemblyman Walczyk just hopes the transition process is fair and the employees are given ample time to move their families.
“A lot of these guys have bought nice houses in this community,” he said. “Some of them recently, some of them built them with their own hands. They are part of this fabric, and ripping them apart doesn’t happen overnight, so let’s be fair.”