Fishkill prison one of six to shutter next year
The Downstate Correctional Facility near Beacon is one of six state prisons that will close in March as New York State evaluates the cost of keeping its facilities open while the number of inmates shrinks.
Downstate, a maximum-security facility in Fishkill with 690 prisoners — just over half of its capacity — is the largest of the six prisons that Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Monday (Nov. 8) would close. She said the moves will save taxpayers $142 million annually.
More than 1,500 people work at the prisons, although the state said it would reassign them and had no plans for layoffs. Still, Hochul’s announcement was panned by elected officials in the Highlands, who said it was poorly planned.
The closure of Downstate, which opened in 1979, “will prove especially disruptive to the employees and the surrounding community,” said Assembly Member Jonathan Jacobson, a Democrat whose district includes Beacon.
The facility’s 644 employees “cannot simply pack up their lives and families to take another job farther upstate at another facility or move into another job down the road at comparable salaries,” he said. In addition, “the City of Beacon sells water and sewage capacity to the facility, which it counts on when determining its annual budget. Should this closure go through, I will be seeking impact aid relief for Beacon.”
Fishkill Supervisor Ozzy Albra said he fears how the closure will affect his town. Downstate employees “shop in our stores. Their kids go to school together. They’re pillars of our community.”
The prisons will close on March 10, with inmates moved to vacant cells at other institutions. The Willard Drug Treatment Campus will be relocated to Chautauqua County; the work release program at Rochester will move to Orleans County; and the Elmira Correctional Facility in Chemung County will absorb prisoners who would have gone to Downstate, which serves as a reception facility for inmates entering the state system.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) said Monday that it will “work closely with the various bargaining units to provide staff with opportunities for priority placement via voluntary transfers, as well as priority employment at other facilities or other state agencies.”
In a statement, the DOCCS noted that the prison population in New York State has declined by nearly 30 percent since January 2020 and by 57 percent since 1999. The 31,469 people incarcerated by the state is the lowest number since 1984.
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced this week that these six state prisons will be shut down on March 10.
Beacon Prison Action, a group that advocates prisoners’ rights, welcomed the news of the closures, saying the state’s incarcerated population for decades had been inflated by “racist and overly punitive sentencing.” Laurie Dick, the organization’s founder, urged legislators to go further by implementing “elder parole” reform, “which will allow those who are over 55 years of age and who have served at least 15 years of their sentence an opportunity to convince the parole board that they deserve a chance at liberty before they die.”
But state Sen. Sue Serino, a Republican whose district includes the Highlands, questioned whether criminal justice reforms should be credited for the dramatic decrease in prisoners.
“New York’s prison populations are not dropping because our state has suddenly become safer, they are dropping because of misguided policies coming out of Albany like ‘bail reform’ that put criminals ahead of law-abiding citizens and back onto our streets,” she argued. “The proposed closures will hurt both our prison workforce and those incarcerated, who will likely be sent to more crowded facilities while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose a threat.”
The 2021-22 state budget authorizes the governor to close prisons as the incarcerated population declines as a way to save taxpayer dollars.
The DOCCS said it reviewed a number of factors — infrastructure; program offerings; security levels; medical and mental health services; the proximity of other facilities; potential re-uses; and areas of the state where prior closures have occurred — at its 50 correctional facilities before deciding on the six prisons it would close. It also factored in recently enacted parole-reform legislation.
The state Office of General Services and Empire State Development, New York’s economic development agency, will weigh how to reuse the shuttered facilities.
In 2019, Empire State Development awarded development rights at the former Beacon Correctional Facility site to Urban Green Food, a New York City-based firm which plans to create a “bike farm” with a hotel and courtyard, an indoor track-and-field venue and an arena for indoor cycling known as a velodrome, along with dozens of acres of farmland and bike trails.
That project is expected to go to the Beacon Planning Board next year, said Eric Anderson, the founder of Urban Green Food.
Beacon Mayor Lee Kyriacou said he’d like state and local communities to see the Downstate closure “as an opportunity to do collaborative regional planning.” As far as potential uses for the site, the mayor said he believes a collaborative planning process “would show need for commercial space and affordable, denser housing, as opposed to single-family homes.”
But Serino said that any future uses should have been “coordinated well before the closures were announced without warning.”
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro was highly critical of Hochul’s decision. “There has been no coordination between the governor’s office and Dutchess County on the closure of this large facility, nor a coordinated plan for the future use of the parcel and the hundreds of workers who will be affected,” he said on Monday. “Today’s announcement only leaves Dutchess County with more questions than answers.”