Gowanda correctional facility closure has left community with unanswered questions

Investigates

GOWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) – The upcoming closure of the Gowanda Correctional Facility is going to leave a big hole in the small village, and some community members are trying to get a better grasp of how this prison got on the chopping block so they can explain it to those who are reeling from the decision.

But so far, they have come up empty-handed despite numerous inquiries with state government officials.

The Cuomo administration announced Dec. 21, 2020, that it would close Gowanda Correctional Facility, along with one in Watertown and the annex at Clinton Correctional, a maximum-security state prison in Dannemora. The state gave the facilities 90 days before closing each of them at the end of March.

Community members who oppose the decision have held rallies near each town to protest the closures, arguing that the state rushed the decision without including stakeholders, among other things.

State officials have said the inmate population has dropped so much that it no longer needs all the prison space.  

Indeed, the state’s inmate population has decreased to the lowest level in three decades as Cuomo has closed at least 15 prisons over his tenure.

But the decision is mired in controversy, especially in Gowanda, where a group of residents has tried for several months to pry from the state’s grip documents that specify how the state will save $52 million per year when all the workers were offered jobs elsewhere, among other questions.  

After all, the community was closed out of the decision-making process, said Michael Hutchinson, vice president of the nonprofit Gowanda Area Development Corporation that works with government to develop projects.

“We’re not trying to be critical,” Hutchinson said.

“We just want information but what it does tell us is that there’s some type of communication or information gap. One of the things that builds public trust and confidence is that open transparency.”

As a result, one lawmaker said he will ask the legislature to pause the closure of the prison when they ultimately meet to decide if they will rescind the emergency powers bestowed to Cuomo almost a year ago at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.  

A lot is at stake.

At least $51 million in payroll for Western New York and 700 jobs – 500 of which are corrections officers and sergeants —  would disappear in the small village by the end of March. In addition, many of the employees face major life changes as they upend their families to move to wherever they get relocated to.

“Their lives are turned upside down,” said Mark DeBurgomaster, Western Region’s vice president of NYSCOPBA, the union that represents correctional officers.

“The timing was absolutely terrible, not to mention he announces it four days before Christmas. You can’t take much more than a slap in the face than that.”

Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, said he asked the acting commissioner of corrections why it would take this long to provide residents with information. But he did not have any answers.

“Apparently, they’re making decisions based on information that’s not really at their fingertips,” Borrello said.

Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, said the state has even closed facilities in the prison system not long after spending millions on rehab work or maintenance.

Gowanda is no different.

The state has spent $9.1 million maintaining the Gowanda prison since 2013, for work such as window and roof replacements, and new flooring.

The state plans to maintain the mothballed prison, too, for future reuse. Those costs have not been shared, either.

But Gallivan said reusing a prison is a tough pitch to make. He could recall a prison in Staten Island being reused as a movie studio, but the opportunities in the more-rural Gowanda are not the same.

“Most of the prisons in the state that have closed still sit empty,” Gallivan said.

“The fact that the buildings were clearly built for a very specific use and not readily adaptable to something else creates problems for use and you have state assets that essentially sit there unused and deteriorate at taxpayer expense.

Thomas Mailey, spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said the decision to close these three prisons is based on the condition of the facilities and programs that were offered, the locations of prior prison closures and the ability to re-use the sites.

“As a result, DOCCS carefully reviewed the operations at its 52 correctional facilities and identified Watertown and Gowanda Correctional Facilities and the Clinton Annex for closure, Mailey said.

“With the closure of these two facilities and the Clinton-Annex, we will be able to absorb the incarcerated population into vacant beds available at other institutions. These closures will result in an annual savings of approximately $89 million and a reduction of around 2,750 beds.” 

Mailey said that by closing Gowanda there will be $54 million saved in annual personnel costs and another $6.7 million in annual contractual services, equipment and supplies that no longer will be needed.

Those employees impacted by the closure will be transferred to funded vacant positions at other prisons or offices in the state system, DOCCS said. Therefore, this allows for staff savings through attrition.

The closure will cost the state an additional $6.9 million in food and clothing for incarcerated individuals being transferred and another $2.2 million for potential reinvestments and transfer of programs to other facilities.

In all, the state saves a total of $52 million on closing just Gowanda, he said.

That’s about all he was willing to share.

“That looks great on paper,” DeBurgomaster said.

“But in this case, some of their explanations are convenient for them.”

DeBurgomaster said violence is state prisons is on the rise, even with the reductions in the number of inmates. They are in closer quarters, he said, which is a recipe for danger.

His concern is the state is making existing prisons unmanageable and more dangerous by “cramming” inmates in them.

“We’ve reduced the number of inmates over this period by half and our assaults on staff and assaults on inmates on inmates are at their highest levels ever,” DeBurgomaster said.

“That’s got to show them that by putting them into smaller confines it’s still more violent.”

Gallivan also said he wants to make sure the state eliminates double bunking of inmates. If any prisons are, then Gallivan would argue that these closures are not justified.

“Absent the data to show that analysis, and all of the facilities on the spreadsheet side by side or top to bottom, one could conclude why here?” Gallivan said.

“And why some of the others? It’s hard to say.”

Hutchinson said a lot of people in the Gowanda area have questions like this, and others. He wanted to try to answer them by getting facts from the state.

The first Freedom of Information request went to the governor’s office, which responded they did not have any documents as described in the request. That sent him to the state corrections agency, which he filed a FOIL request with on January 23.

But even before that, Hutchinson and other members sent questions to local leaders and elected officials, and not one had any answers. In fact, he said they told him to give them the documentation if he ever gets it because they, too, want to better understand the decision.

“That’s the frustration, it isn’t me,” he said.

“There are people in the community who come to us because they know us and ask what about this and what about that? All we are saying is give us the facts, we will even be an emissary for the governor here locally. We are not trying to crucify anyone.

Hutchinson said as soon as he and others began to ask state government officials these questions, the prison got emptied out.

“They didn’t wait 90 days,” he said.  “We just think we deserve the facts. If t is a hard pill to swallow, we will do that.”

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