Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to eliminate some 3,500 prison beds from the state Department of Correctional Services.
During his budget address Tuesday afternoon, Cuomo proposed to shutter vacant prison facilities and juvenile justice centers. His proposal could impact communities across the North Country that rely heavily on prisons for employment.
The governor's budget contains a prison consolidation implementation plan.
"We are not talking about releasing prisoners," Cuomo said. "We're talking about consolidating prisons and unused space. There are many prisons with high levels of vacancy. We want to consolidate and save money."
Cuomo says he will create a panel charged with studying prison closures and consolidation within the state's correctional system.
"We will appoint a task force within the executive and legislative branches to make determinations as to which prisons and where," he said.
"We hope to have those decisions made one way or the other 30 days after the budget is approved. Every day you don't make a decision and you're not going forward, obviously, that's day where you're not finding savings."
If that panel fails to find savings - or if legislators scrap the governor's plan - then Cuomo will direct the DOCS commissioner to begin shuttering prisons statewide.
But Cuomo didn't just deliver tough talk on potential prison closures.
The governor wants to create an economic transformation program for communities affected by future prison closures. Cuomo says he'll set aside $100 million in aid for those communities and direct his regional economic development councils to help with the transition.
"I think it's right that we say to communities that are going to deal with the loss of a prison that we understand the situation and the problem," he said.
"A community that is faced with the loss of a prison will receive a $10 million economic transformation program grant and help from the Empire State Development Corporation to find an alternative use for the prison, another business, etc."
Cuomo's budget aims to eliminate the 12-month statutory notification before closing a prison, which allows the facility to be shut down as soon as the governor's panel makes its determinations.
Donn Rowe is president of NYSCOPBA, the union that represents some 23,000 corrections officers statewide. He says cutting the bureaucracy at DOCS while closing prisons is the wrong approach.
"On the heels of the five prison closures over the last three years and loss of roughly 2,500 beds, the closure of any additional facilities poses a clear and present danger to the public and worsens what is already an extremely serious overcrowding situation with many of our most dangerous and violent inmates," he said in a prepared statement.
"Put simply, there is no way to shut down more prisons without putting correction officers, inmates and the public at risk," Rowe added.
Cuomo is also targeting reductions within the juvenile justice system, noting that the population has dropped from 1,300 in 2006 to 604 in 2011.
The governor wants to reduce the system's capacity by more than 30 percent while simultaneously investing in locally-based alternatives. Cuomo says economic transformation grants will also be made available to communities that lose juvenile detention centers.
Last year, former Gov. David Paterson proposed closing several prisons in the North Country - including the Moriah Shock Incarceration Facility in Essex County.
There's no word yet on which specific prisons could be targeted.
Budget officials estimate that Cuomo's DOCS proposal will save $72 million next year.