Hochul to look at revamping prisons

Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul boards a private plane last week at Massena International Airport, leaving St. Lawrence County after visiting Canton-Potsdam Hospital. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

ALBANY — As six correctional facilities await closure this spring, Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul announced Wednesday, as part of her State of the State address, that she will form a commission to look at how the prisons should be redeveloped.

According to Gov. Hochul’s State of the State book, which outlines dozens of her plans for 2022, the move to form the commission stems from her decision to close “six under-capacity state prisons that are no longer necessary given declines in the incarcerated population.”

“This action — which will result in no workers losing their jobs — not only saves taxpayers millions of dollars but also creates the opportunity to transform these facilities in more creative and productive ways,” her State of the State book reads.

Two of the six correctional facilities are located in the north country — Ogdensburg Correctional Facility and Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Essex County. Gov. Hochul’s decision to close those facilities has drawn staunch opposition from Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown.

Both have criticized the state’s lack of a redevelopment plan for the soon-to-be vacant prisons and have used Watertown Correctional Facility, which closed in 2021, as an example. The town of Watertown is looking to acquire the former Watertown facility to redevelop on its own.

Gov. Hochul’s proposed commission will consist of leadership from state agencies, foundations, regional leaders and stakeholders as well as economic development experts from across the state and country.

“In developing an action plan, this cross-cutting group should identify key goals that support New York state priorities, such as good paying job growth, job training for high-growth industries, and small business support. The commission should also consider factors like site conditions, surrounding land use, redevelopment costs, local workforce trends, and regional economic development strategies,” according to her State of the State. “This commission will work to help New York turn empty prison cells into opportunities for more communities to thrive.”

In a press release issued Wednesday, Sen. Ritchie said that she looks forward to hearing more about the commission and would hope that it not only looks at vacant prisons but other state-owned properties such as vacant buildings on Ogdensburg’s St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center grounds.

“I look forward to learning more about the governor’s proposals, including her plans to form a commission of regional leaders and economic development experts tasked with developing a plan for re-purposing the state’s shuttered prisons,” Sen. Ritchie said.

Rep. Walczyk said that a prison closure plan already includes the repurposing of the facility and that it’s been part of state law for many years.

“It’s easy to forget that because Andrew Cuomo in every single budget year would override that statute giving himself the authority to close facilities without the Legislature, without the year notice required in statute and change the timeline for notice and the number of facilities year after year,” Rep. Walczyk said. “So we forget the law in the books that actually requires exactly what Gov. Hochul was talking about here.”

Rep. Walczyk said that it’s a change for the better.

“So it’s good. Good especially because it kind of signals that in her budget I would be very surprised to see the same Cuomo line that says ‘I am going to close six correctional facilities. I’m not going to tell you when until 30 days before I make that decision,’” he said. “That is a really great sign.”

Rep. Walcyzk said that he hopes stakeholders from communities affected by the closure will be included in the commission.

“To go by the words the governor said yesterday in her State of the State and she said she is going to respect, again, the role of the Legislature, so I would anticipate that the representatives, in this case Patty Ritchie and I would be directly at the table,” he said.

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