|Study Shows NY Corrections Running 88% Capacity|
|By Joseph Spector , Bureau Chief of Gannett's Albany bureau, stargazette.com|
ALBANY -- State prisons have as many as 8,000 excess beds at their 67 facilities, and the ratio of corrections officers to inmates far exceeds national averages, state records show.
A review of population counts and staffing levels by Gannett's Albany Bureau shows that prisons are running at about 88 percent capacity -- with hundreds of open beds at some facilities.
The data comes amid Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plans this year to lower the excess bed count by 3,700 to save the state roughly $72 million, perhaps leading to the closure of six prisons.
In the Southern Tier, there are three prisons: Southport Correctional Facility, a super maximum security prison in Pine City; Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility; and Monterey Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, a minimum security institution in Beaver Dams.
Elmira Correctional Facility also is an intake facility -- where prisoners are processed for assignment to other prisons -- for 33 New York counties.
While the number of open beds is considerable, the numbers can be misleading, state officials warn.
The state Department of Correctional Services said nearly 2,500 of the open beds are considered "restricted vacancies." Those beds need to be kept open to move in prisoners who may get sick, have mental-health issues or become a security risk.
Additionally, state officials said another 1,700 beds must be retained in case of fluctuations in the prison population. That leaves the roughly 3,700 beds that Cuomo wants to close at medium- and minimum-security prisons, officials said.
The various ways to count the state's excess beds -- the corrections officers' union has its own numbers, too -- shows the complexity Cuomo faces as he seeks to reduce the size of prisons.
"People are coming in the system all the time and people are going out of the system all the time," said Assembly Corrections Committee Chairman Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens. "So, to determine that a bed is empty and how it stays empty and when it gets full" is difficult.
Broome County Sheriff David Harder knows about that fluid population. Many of the inmates at his county jail are shipped to Elmira when they enter the state system. There, they are classified and held until a suitable bed is open in a facility appropriate for the person's conviction.
"For us, it's the closest reception center to take our inmates to," Harder said. "It's only an hour down the road."
Annually, more than 200 inmates from Broome go to Elmira for admission to the state prison system, Harder said. Broome County correction officers transport the inmates, he said.
"We only transport who the state says we can," Harder said. "They'll tell us bring five, bring 10, they'll tell us who to bring and what day to bring them."
The plan to downsize the prisons' capacity is the largest the state has ever undertaken, experts believe.
State data obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request shows that the ratio of inmates to officers averages slightly less than 3 to 1. That's far below the national average of about 7.5 inmates to every officer, according to the American Correctional Association.
As of late April, the state reported about 57,000 inmates at its facilities, which includes its maximum-, medium- and minimum-security prisons as well as work-release programs and camps. It had nearly 21,000 officers, a ratio of about three officers to every eight prisoners.
If all the prison staff -- including maintenance workers, administrators and food workers -- were tallied, the ratio of inmates to staff would be about 2 to 1, or about 28,000 staffers to 57,000 inmates.
Cuomo's aides warn that many factors, not vacancy rates or inmate-to-guard ratios alone, will determine what facilities will be downsized or closed. The state's prisons have capacity for about 65,000 inmates, records show.
The corrections officers' union disputes the data. They argue that the ratio of inmates to guards is, in practice, much higher and vacancy rates are inflated because so many extra beds are needed to care for prisoners who are sick or have other problems.
Still, the number of excess beds and staffing at some facilities late last month was striking:
Bayview Correctional Facility, a medium-security women's prison in New York City, had more staff than inmates -- 155 staff members to 149 people behind bars.
The Albion Correctional Facility, a medium-security women's prison in western New York, was running at about 66 percent capacity, with 424 open beds -- the most in the state.
Hale Creek, in Johnstown, about 40 miles west of Albany, was running at 46 percent capacity, the lowest of any medium-security facility in the state. It had 225 inmates and 119 officers.
A total of 13 facilities had a 2-to-1 ratio of inmates to guards, even though many were medium- and minimum-security facilities: including Albion; Hale Creek; Taconic in Westchester County; and Fishkill, Beacon and Downstate in Dutchess County.
Citing security reasons, the Department of Correctional Services did not release a list of how many beds at each facility are deemed "restricted vacancies" and can't be closed. Therefore, it's unclear how many specific beds at each facility are actually viewed as excess.
Advocates for closing prisons say the state simply has too many facilities for a declining prison population. But upstate lawmakers and unions want to keep the prisons open because they can be a main source of employment in struggling communities.
Cuomo has said repeatedly that prisons shouldn't be used as economic-development engines. He has offered up to $50 million in grants to communities hurt by the closures.
"If people need jobs, let's get people jobs. Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs," Cuomo said in his State of the State address in January.
The number of prisoners peaked at 71,600 in 1999. The population has plummeted 20 percent since then as the state loosened laws on drug offenses and shifted to more alternative-to-incarceration programs.
"The prisons were built as a way to increase the economic capacity of upstate New York," charged Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, D-Mount Vernon, Westchester County, the former head of the Senate Corrections Committee. "We're saying that's not a good reason to keep people incarcerated, particularly when we've moved to a very different place in our social-justice agenda."
Joe Spector is the Bureau Chief of Gannett's Albany bureau.
Database reporter Cathey O'Donnell and Public Service Editor
Jennifer Fusco contributed to this report.
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