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Prison Closings Trouble Upstate New York

In upstate New York, the rural counties that crowd the Canadian border have been known as "Little Siberia" for decades — because of the harsh winters there and because prisons are a big part of the local economy.

On a recent frigid morning, Saranac Lake's Winter Carnival parade winds down Main Street. There are dancing clowns and fire trucks and National Guardsmen home from Iraq.

And there in the middle of the parade is a float carrying a giant banner that reads "Save Camp Gabriels."

Gabriels is a minimum-security prison camp, one of four state facilities slated for closure.

Mary Ellen Keith, a local government official and activist, urged for keeping the prison open at a rally last month.

"We can't lose this — this is more than just dollars! This is life. This is our heritage," she said.

It turns out that declining inmate populations are terrible news in northern New York, where prisons are viewed with roughly the same loyalty and fondness as factories or farms.

They provide the best and most stable jobs. Camp Gabriels alone employs more than 180 people and contributes roughly $40 million to the regional economy.

"If they leave, it's going to be devastation. I mean, there's nothing else around here," says Mike Vascukynas, who owns a camera shop in Saranac Lake. He says prison guards and their families bring him a lot of business.

When he opened his shop two decades ago, the state of New York faced soaring crime rates — and was scrambling to build more than a dozen prisons.

"The prisons brought a lot of economy into the area — that's why they were here. That and there was no place else to put them," Vascukynas says.

A Vital Service or Common-Sense Move?

The first North Country prisons were built back in the 1800s. Some families have worked as corrections officers for generations. In the 1980s, a second wave of prison-building reshaped the region's culture. As farms and paper mills went under, more people went to work for the penitentiaries.

Republican State Sen. Betty Little says this region still provides a vital service.

"The fact that there are 12 facilities in my Senate district is because no one wanted them. And yes, we took them. And we developed an economy around them. But that's not, you know, the fault of this area," Little says.

These days, Camp Gabriels operates at about half capacity, just under 190 inmates. But Little argues that too many inmates are being crowded into prisons downstate.

"I will be the first to admit that if there are no inmates, you don't have any prisons for them. But that's not really the case of what's happening here. They are double bunking still — and have over 6,000 double bunks right now," she says.

State officials say housing two inmates in a single cell is a widely accepted practice.

And Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer argues that closing prisons is a common-sense move that will help dent the state's $4.5 billion deficit.

"What we are doing is saving taxpayers $70 million. It's hard. With the prison population down about 7,000 over the last several years, it makes sense to rationalize our prison structure. That's what we're doing," Spitzer says.

'Job Program'

Even before inmate populations began to drop, North Country's prison industry drew fire from critics like Robert Gangi, who heads a prison policy reform group called Correctional Association of New York.

Gangi says building an economy around inmates always raised troubling questions.

"Ninety percent of the drug offenders locked up in New York state prisons are people of color, either African-American or Latino. And virtually all of the prisons that have been built in recent years to house drug offenders have been located in upstate, white rural communities," Gangi says.

He says New York should help revitalize small towns like Saranac Lake but that propping up unneeded prisons isn't the answer.

"The prison system has a purpose in our administration of justice and that should be the focus of the prison system," Gangi says. "It shouldn't be twisted into a job program for economically depressed upstate communities."

Camp Gabriels supporters argue that crime in New York will eventually go up again.

At last month's rally, veteran corrections officer Peter Martin predicted that Camp Gabriels will still be here, providing good jobs and ready to house a new crop of inmates.

"We will have Camp Gabriels when we get done fighting. All our employees — we won't let you down. We will be there next year," Martin says.

Those arguments won out three years ago, when a similar plan to close prisons was shelved.

But with inmate populations still shrinking — and New York's budget deficit ballooning — state officials insist that this time Camp Gabriels' gates will close for good.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.