Slowly Closing the Gates: A State-by-State Assessment of Recent Prison Closures

Slowly Closing the Gates: A State-by-State Assessment of Recent Prison Closures

By Christopher Petrella and Alex Friedmann

After nearly 40 years of unprecedented growth, our
nation’s expanding prison population has finally begun to sputter. According to
the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010 marked the first year since 1972 in
which, taken together, state and federal correctional populations declined
slightly – a trend that continued in 2011.


This modest reduction reflects revisions to draconian
drug laws (particularly in New York and Florida), curtailing re-incarceration
for technical parole violators, and the burgeoning implementation of “good
time” early-release credits
. As a result, 15 states have closed 35 adult
correctional facilities over the last two years, according to the National
Conference of State Legislators, while additional closures are pending in 2013.

Although prison closures are widely celebrated by
prisoners and criminal justice reform activists alike, the implementation of
such plans is rarely straightforward and often encounters opposition from local
communities, prison guard unions and lawmakers in the districts where
facilities are slated to close. If achieved, prison closures are usually
piecemeal and result in the transfer of prisoners to other facilities, not
additional releases. Similarly, prison employees displaced by closures are
often absorbed by other facilities, not fired. The predictable tumult resulting
from actual and proposed prison closures reflects the competing and contradictory
interests held by various stakeholders involved in the process.

Despite signaling a hopeful interruption in the
business-as-usual crime and punishment mania that has characterized U.S. penal
policy for the past half-century, it’s possible to argue that the increasing
number of prison closures represents just as much an experiment in
budget-cutting in the short term as it does in durable criminal justice reform
over the long term.

Since prison closures are not jurisdictionally
uniform, it’s worth exploring the constellation of stakeholder priorities and
policy issues on a state-by-state basis. While each jurisdiction handles prison
closures differently, we begin with California because it provides textbook
insight into the calculus involved in assessing and actualizing prison


Since at least 2011, California has arguably been at
the epicenter of contemporary (albeit involuntary) prison reform. As a result
of the state’s court-ordered prison population reduction, the California
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has proposed closing the
3,900-bed California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco.

“[CRC is] the least efficient, most expensive,
one of our least safe, oldest prisons, and it’s appropriate at this time to
begin to think about moving out of those facilities that are so expensive to
run,” stated then-CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate.

Plans to shutter the facility began several years ago
when, on May 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling by a three-judge
panel requiring the State of California to reduce its prison population to
137.5 percent of design capacity within two years to alleviate severe
overcrowding that resulted in constitutionally inadequate medical and mental
health care. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].

At the time, CDCR facilities were operating at around
180 percent capacity, on average. In response the California legislature and
Governor Jerry Brown enacted two laws – AB 109 and AB 117 (together known as
the Public Safety Realignment initiative) – aimed at significantly reducing the
number of state prisoners. Implemented in late 2011, Realignment transfers
“new non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders” from state
prisons to county-level facilities, and shifts most parolees from state to
county supervision.

California prison officials have also proposed
canceling the construction of several reentry facilities, including the
Northern California Reentry Facility in San Joaquin County, Estrella Facility
in Paso Robles and the Stark Facility in Chino.

The Public Policy Institute of California estimated
that Realignment has been responsible for a 30,000-prisoner reduction in the
CDCR’s population.

While California’s prison population has dropped,
resulting in a reduction in needed bed space and plans to close the CRC, the
state’s jail population has risen substantially. The average daily population
in California jails has increased by at least 12 percent – roughly equivalent
to 9,000 prisoners – since Realignment was implemented, reversing a gradual
reduction. That is, one-third of the state’s prison population reduction has
been effectively “absorbed” by county jails, resulting in a shifting
of the overcrowding problem from the state to the county level.

In response to the CDCR’s proposal to shut down the
CRC, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the union
that represents state prison workers, warned the closure would negatively
impact the local economy because the prison has a payroll of over $76 million,
which would disappear if the facility was decommissioned.

The CRC is projected to close by June 2016.


A declining prison population has led Colorado
officials to close several facilities; by the end of 2012, the state had 2,109
vacant prison beds.

The Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) closed
the 500-bed Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in March 2012, resulting in an
estimated $6.3 million in annual savings. State lawmakers had tried to keep the
prison open but only managed to postpone its closure for six months.

“It’s been a huge [loss] for both the community
and businesses,” said Bent County Commissioner Lynden Gill.

“We continue to work with Bent County officials
and agencies in Washington to help find a new purpose for the Fort Lyon prison
facility,” Governor John Hickenlooper stated. “It’s a wonderful
campus and could be put to great use by a host of different federal agencies or
other businesses.”

State lawmakers attempted to reopen Fort Lyon earlier
this year, without success. Governor Hickenlooper proposed converting the
former prison into a treatment center for the homeless, and that measure
eventually passed the legislature in May 2013 after being added to a bill
related to pay and work hours for DOC employees. The state plans to bus
homeless people to the former prison, where they will receive treatment
services – at a cost of $2.78 million during the first year of the program.

“Is this actually going to help homelessness? I
don’t think so,” said state Senator David Balmer. “You can’t just bus
people someplace they’ve never been and think it’s going to be OK.” The
plan will create jobs and provide revenue for the local economy, though.

Meanwhile, on November 1, 2012, the state closed the
Colorado State Penitentiary II (CSP II), also known as Centennial South. The
prison, which was financed with $208 million in “certificates of
participation,” opened in September 2010 following strong lobbying by DOC
officials who claimed they needed it to house “a growing population of violent
prisoners.” That growing population never materialized, and the 948-bed
facility, composed entirely of solitary confinement cells, sat two-thirds empty
until the state decided to shut it down.

“The bottom line is we never needed that prison
to begin with,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado
Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

The prisoners held at CSP II were moved to other
facilities, and no employees lost their jobs. “The plan we have … allows
us to reassign the staff, 213 employees, that are in CSP II funding positions,
working the housing units,” said then-Colorado DOC director Tom Clements.
“It allows us to reassign those individuals to other positions in the
Fremont County Correctional Complex.”

The closure of CSP II was estimated to save the state
around $13 million annually beginning in the current fiscal year.

In 2012, Colorado officials hired CNA, a nonprofit
research organization, to study the state’s prison system. CNA’s report is due
on June 30, 2013, and is expected to recommend additional prison closures –
which has residents and officials in prison towns worried.

“With the loss of jobs in natural gas development
and the closure of the New Elk Mine, this is about our last industry,”
said Richard Harlan, a former warden at the state’s Trinidad Correctional
Facility. “This is absolutely critical. I don’t know what the numbers are
now, but when I retired about 75 percent of our staff lived in Trinidad and Las
Animas County. It was a huge number of jobs, a lot of families and there’s no
other opportunity. It’s absolutely critical that we maintain and keep this
[prison open].”

“The prisons are a very critical part of our
economy,” added Cañon City Mayor Tony Greer. Cañon City is home to seven
state correctional facilities.

“Unfortunately, a lot of those smaller
communities were sold a bill of goods about [how] this is going to be good for
your community – and it did create an economic boom for them,” noted
Colorado State Public Defender Douglas Wilson. “But now with the [prison]
populations going down, I think the legislature’s going to have to make some
tough decisions about if they close, and if so, where do they close the


After Connecticut implemented a number of policy
changes – including risk-reduction credits for prisoners, a new home
confinement program for DUI offenders, changes involving the age at which
juveniles can be charged as adults and a wide array of re-entry services – the
state’s prison population dropped from 19,716 in 2009 to 16,586 in July 2012 –
a 15.8% decline.

Consequently, the Connecticut DOC closed the 878-bed
J.B. Gates Correctional Institution as of June 1, 2011, and the 603-bed Bergin
Correctional Institution on August 12, 2011. The state also considered closing
the Enfield Correctional Institution, but plans to decommission that facility
were never implemented.

Two unions that represent state prison employees,
AFSCME locals 1565 and 387, had filed suit in Hartford Superior Court in August
2011, requesting an injunction to stop the DOC from closing the Bergin

“Of immediate concern is the increased danger to
correctional officers due to the sudden and significant increase in the inmate
population of the receiving prisons and/or overcrowding in the receiving
prisons,” the lawsuit stated.

On February 17, 2012, the superior court issued a
ruling which found that the union’s claims seeking to enjoin the closure of
Bergin were moot, as the facility had closed before the suit was filed. The
court noted that prison employees were not laid off as a result of the closure
and that the state’s prison population had continued to drop; thus, the union’s
claims regarding the effects of overcrowding and increased danger to prison
employees were also mooted. The lawsuit was therefore dismissed. [See: 1565 387
AFSCME v. Arnone, Hartford Superior Court (CT), Case No. HHDCV116024261].


While Florida has closed 15 correctional facilities
since 2011, some county officials are worried about Governor Rick Scott’s idea to
shift about 5,600 prisoners from state prisons to local jails, along the lines
of California’s Realignment initiative. The Florida Department of Corrections
(FDOC) claims that the proposal will reduce operating costs and save the state
around $47.7 million a year.

However, according to an analysis by the Association
of Florida Counties, the proposal is projected to cost the counties $100
million annually. This does not include increased costs for prisoner medical
care, staffing and renovations to county jails that may not be able to
accommodate higher-security level offenders serving long sentences.

Overcrowding in jails is already a problem in Florida,
as 20 percent of county jails are currently full or over their design capacity,
according to the Association of Counties. Broward County and Palm Beach County
are both particularly worried about the proposal to shift state prisoners to
local facilities because they neither have the space needed to house state
prisoners nor the funds to build new jails.

In 2011, the state closed five correctional
facilities: Brevard Correctional Institution (CI), Hendry CI, the Tallahassee
Road Prison, and the Lowell and Sumter boot camps. The FDOC’s 2012 proposed
prison closures included Broward CI in Ft. Lauderdale, Demilly CI in Polk City,
Gainesville CI in Alachua County, Hillsborough CI in Riverview, Indian River CI
in Vero Beach, Jefferson CI in Monticello and New River CI in Raiford, plus the
River Junction Work Camp, Caryville Work Camp, Hendry Work Camp and Levy
Forestry Camp.

“Declining prison admissions has led to a surplus
of prison beds, allowing us to pare down our budget shortfall by consolidating
and closing our older, less efficient facilities. We are committed to placing
as many affected staff as possible in vacant positions for which they are
qualified,” remarked then-FDOC Secretary Ken Tucker.

On January 19, 2012, the Jefferson County Board passed
a resolution opposing the closure of the 1,200-bed Jefferson CI, noting that
the prison was the county’s largest local employer, supplying 177 job

“The loss of jobs and the impact on the local
economy and community will be substantial, estimated to have a $19 million
impact on local economic activity and uprooting longtime residents who must
move elsewhere to find new jobs,” the resolution stated.

The resolution was applauded by the Teamsters, which
represents around 20,000 FDOC employees. “Rural Florida has suffered
enough in this recession, and the last thing the state should do is to cause
more pain by rushing to close its correctional facilities,” said Teamsters
Local 2011 Acting President Ken Wood.

Democratic state lawmakers criticized the proposed
prison closures, too, citing the resulting loss of jobs. “I am saddened
and disappointed with Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to close several correctional
institutions that are economically vital to our rural communities,” said
state Rep. Alan Williams.

The Florida legislature, during budget negotiations
with the governor’s office, eventually decided to keep Jefferson CI open at a
cost of $10.2 million to the state. The other six prisons and four work camps
slated for closure in 2012 were shuttered, with prisoners at those facilities
being transferred to other locations.

Four prisoners and two volunteers at Hillsborough CI,
a 289-bed faith- and character-based women’s prison, had filed a lawsuit in
state court in an attempt to stop the facility from closing, without success.
Circuit Court Judge Terry P. Lewis issued a ruling in February 2012 that found
the FDOC’s closure of the prison did not violate state law.


In February 2012, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn
announced that the state was closing Tamms supermax, a facility where prisoners
were housed in solitary confinement cells. [See: PLN, April 2013, p.28]. The
prison’s January 4, 2013 closure was celebrated by prisoners, their family
members and human rights advocates.

“We are going through stages of relief,
disbelief, celebration and reflection,” stated a message posted online by
Tamms Year Ten, an advocacy group that has worked for years to end solitary
confinement and other abuses at the prison.

The Illinois Department of Corrections also announced
plans to close the Dwight Correctional Center (one of the state’s three prisons
for women), the Joliet and Murphysboro Youth Centers, and three adult
transitional centers. The closures are expected to save the state up to $100
million annually.

The John Howard Association (JHA), a prison watchdog
group, expressed concerns about closing Dwight and moving more than 1,000 women
prisoners to the already overcrowded Decatur Correctional Center. JHA director
John Maki noted the facility had made improvements and implemented programs
that benefited prisoners. “If Dwight closes, Illinois risks losing the
significant investment we have made in creating this rehabilitative environment
that protects public safety,” he said.

Other critics of the prison closures included AFSCME,
the union that represents state prison employees. One AFSCME official said of
the closures, “it will worsen tensions in an already volatile
environment…. It’s the perfect example of how one closure has a dangerous
domino effect statewide.” However, family members of prisoners housed at
Tamms held marches and rallies in support of shutting down the supermax prison.

State lawmakers stymied efforts to close Tamms and the
other facilities, voting to restore funding to keep them open. “This is an
economic disaster for those communities affected by closures,” remarked
state Rep. Keith Mackinaw. Unconvinced, Governor Quinn vetoed the budget
appropriation on June 30, 2012.

AFSCME Council 31 then filed a lawsuit to prevent the
prison closures, and initially obtained a temporary restraining order and
preliminary injunction in September 2012. The union claimed that closing Tamms
would “destabilize the entire prison system, worsen dangerous overcrowding
and put the safety of employees, inmates, youth and the public at risk.”
The circuit court rejected a motion to intervene filed by the Uptown People’s
Law Center, which represented seven Tamms prisoners who wanted the lawsuit
dismissed and the prison closed. The Fifth District Appellate Court upheld the
lower court’s injunction in November 2012.

On December 19, 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court
reversed the preliminary injunction, allowing the closures of Tamms, Dwight
Correctional Center, the two juvenile facilities and three transitional centers
to go forward. “Our state is facing unprecedented financial pressures and
closing these facilities is one part of the long-term solution,” Governor
Quinn said in a press release.

Most of the prisoners housed at Tamms were sent to the
Pontiac Correctional Center, while almost all Tamms employees were shifted to
other facilities. “There were 264 employees who accepted other positions
within DOC, one resigned, seven accepted vacancies at other state agencies and
twenty accepted layoff,” said prison spokesperson Stacey Solano.

The Dwight women’s prison closed on March 29, 2013,
with almost 350 employees being transferred to positions at other facilities.
It was the town’s second-largest employer. Male prisoners at the Logan
Correctional Center were sent to another prison to make room for the women from
Dwight; Logan eventually will be converted to a maximum- and medium-security
women’s facility. Illinois has offered to sell the now-vacant Tamms supermax to
the federal government.

The closure of Tamms and Dwight has not helped reduce
Illinois’ overcrowded prison system, which, as of March 2013, held 49,100
prisoners in facilities with a design capacity of 32,100. In February 2013, the
State Journal-Register reported that six Illinois prisons, including the Graham
Correctional Center, were planning to house prisoners in their gyms due to
overcrowding. “The gymnasiums in those facilities will be temporarily set
up as dormitory units for minimum-security inmates,” said Solano.

“Cramming hundreds more inmates into gyms is less
secure for employees and degrading for inmates,” AFSCME noted in a
statement. The John Howard Association also criticized the move.


Iowa officials are closing the Clinical Care Unit
(CCU) at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, which is only 10 years
old. The state spent $26 million to construct the 200-bed mental health
facility but is now “mothballing” it in preparation for the opening
of a new $117 million, 800-bed maximum-security prison. The new prison,
expected to open in January 2014, will be located approximately one mile from
the CCU.

The closure plan was revealed as part of Governor
Terry Branstad’s budget proposal in January 2013, and involves the relocation
of 960 prisoners. Most of those prisoners – 660 – will move to the new facility
after it opens, while the remaining 300 will be transferred to other prisons.
The state Senate approved the closure of the CCU in May 2013 by passing a
spending package that did not include funding to keep the facility open.

Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta
remarked that the transfer of CCU prisoners to mental health units at other
prisons could begin early next year. He said no employees would lose their
jobs, as they would be moved to the new maximum-security facility. This was
important, because the union that represents state prison workers had cited potential
job losses as a reason to avoid prison closures.

Some state lawmakers and public employee union
members, including AFSCME Council 61, had strongly opposed efforts to shut down
the CCU. The state intends to eventually close the entire Iowa State Penitentiary.

Governor Branstad also wanted to close the
minimum-security 88-bed Luster Heights Prison Camp, but the legislature voted
to keep it open following opposition from prison staff and local officials.
Prisoners at Luster Heights are used for work projects in the nearby community
and are paid $5.00 for up to ten hours of labor, and the loss of the prison
work force would be problematic.

“I don’t think you can replace them for five
dollars per day. We get a lot of work out of them for the amount of money
spent,” said City of McGregor Waste Water Treatment Plant Director Nathan
Hird. “It makes no sense to close an efficient, successful facility so
funds can be diverted to a more expensive one,” added Larry Schellhammer,
who chairs the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors.


The Otter Creek Correctional Center in Wheelwright,
operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest
for-profit prison company, closed in June 2012 after Kentucky declined to renew
its contract to house state prisoners at the facility. County officials have
said they’re still feeling the effects of the job losses. Wheelwright is a
small mountain town with a population of 700, and nearly a quarter of its
residents were left unemployed due to the prison closure.

“It has affected everybody,” said Mayor Andy
Akers. “It has affected not just our town but the whole area. You’ve got
people working up there that live here, plus they trade here at the stores and

The Otter Creek prison was the site of a 2009 sex
scandal involving CCA employees; as a result, the states of Hawaii and Kentucky
removed their female prisoners, and male prisoners from the Kentucky DOC were
transferred to the facility. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.40]. Kentucky subsequently
canceled its $21 million contract with CCA due to budget cuts and efforts to
reduce the state’s prison population.

“CCA will continue to market Otter Creek to
potential government partners with the hope of reopening the facility,”
said company spokesman Steve Owen.

Akers said he hoped the prison would reopen soon.
“We’re a small town and we have no other business or nothing up here.
We’ve got one little gas station,” he noted.


In September 2012, employees at the C. Paul Phelps
Correctional Center in DeQuincy, Louisiana abruptly learned they were going to
lose their jobs. The 54-year-old prison was slated for closure two months
later, and shut down on November 1, 2012. Most of the 942 prisoners were sent
to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and the Louisiana State Penitentiary at

Closing Phelps will save an estimated $2.6 million in
fiscal year 2012 and $11.85 million in fiscal years 2013-2014, according to
Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc.

DeQuincy city officials weren’t happy about the prison
closure. “You’re talking 320 jobs, people’s livelihoods, what it means,
the income it brings to the town through taxes,” said Mayor Lawrence
Henagan. “People come up and visit the inmates, they buy things in

Louisiana had previously closed the 498-bed
Forcht-Wade Correctional Center and 300-bed J. Levy Dabadie Correctional Center
in July 2012. The closures were due to budget cuts; some of the prisoners were
transferred to parish jails, where it is less expensive to house them. The
state estimates $5.7 million in first-year savings from closing the Forcht-Wade
and Dabadie facilities, which will be used as emergency evacuation centers in
case of natural disasters such as hurricanes.

“We’re going to be much more efficient in
providing the same level of service, but at substantially less cost,” said
LeBlanc. “Unfortunately, it does impact our employees.” Several
hundred prison workers were laid off due to the closures.

Legislators had tried to stop the Dabadie facility
from closing by approving more than $8 million in funding to keep it open;
however, Governor Bobby Jindal killed the appropriation with a line-item veto.

“How can the governor line-item veto Dabadie,
which really almost pays for itself and really hurts central Louisiana?”
asked state Rep. Chris Hazel. “It’s really going to hurt the folks around


Public employee union members and several state
lawmakers expressed concern after Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte
decided in January 2013 to close a pre-release center. The local AFSCME
chapter, which represents prison employees, asked to delay the closing of the
Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell.

On February 4, 2013, the legislative Criminal Justice
and Public Safety Committee held a hearing on plans to shut down the
pre-release center and lawmakers questioned whether closing the facility was
the best decision, citing potential adverse effects on both prisoners and
residents in Hallowell.

State Senator Stan Gerzofsky said closing the Central
Maine Pre-Release Center would hurt local communities that rely on prison labor
from the facility. “I’m concerned when the prisoners go, so does some of
our help,” added state Rep. Tim Marks.

“I hope in the coming weeks and months we can
build a coalition to put a stop to this and find a better solution,” said
Jim Durkin, a union representative, at a public forum held two days after the
legislative hearing.

Despite opposition, the facility closed in April 2013
with 58 prisoners being moved to state prisons or the Kennebec County Jail. The
21 employees at the pre-release center were transferred to job positions at
other facilities.


In January 2012, the 145-year-old Nevada State Prison
was taken out of service. State officials said bringing the aging facility up
to code would have cost almost $30 million, while moving prisoners to newer and
more efficient prisons is expected to save half that amount over Nevada’s
two-year budget cycle.

According to a DOC spokesperson, jobs were found for
all of the state workers affected by the closure; most were transferred to
other prisons and several found jobs with different state agencies. Avoiding
laying off the facility’s 140 employees had been the main objective when
lawmakers agreed in 2011 to close the prison. Most of the 700 prisoners at the
facility were sent to the High Desert State Prison.

The state’s execution chamber, which is located at the
Nevada State Prison, will be maintained for several years before being moved to
another facility. The Nevada State Prison was officially decommissioned in May
2012; state officials are considering turning it into a museum.

New York

In January 2013, as part of his executive budget
proposal, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recommended closing two women’s
prisons due to “inefficient” operations, plus four juvenile

He noted that the state was spending close to $70,000
per prisoner at the Beacon Correctional Facility in Dutchess County and over
$74,000 per prisoner at the Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan. He
added that the target cost for efficient prison operations should be closer to
$34,000 per prisoner.

“It is not right, we can’t afford it,”
Governor Cuomo said. “If we are serious about balancing the budget, let’s
run government the way it should be run. We should close these two

Shutting Beacon and Bayview would eliminate 432 beds
from the state’s prison system and result in estimated savings of $18.7 million
through 2014, with an additional $62 million being realized the following year.
The latter savings include projected proceeds from selling the Bayview
facility, which has been vacant since the prison was evacuated in advance of
Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

“The governor’s announcement to close two state
prisons, including one in Beacon, and the closure of the juvenile justice
center in Red Hook, is, of course, a concern as we wait to learn what will
happen to our local residents employed at those facilities, how their
transitions will take place and how our local communities will be
impacted,” said Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro.

“The shuttering of women’s prisons is positive
and long overdue,” added Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the
Correctional Association of New York, which advocates for criminal justice
reform. “However, the Correctional Association is concerned that the closures
of Beacon and Bayview may eliminate some of the most effective opportunities
for incarcerated women to maintain family ties and prepare for a successful
reentry – two key components in reducing recidivism over time.”

Donn Rowe, president of the union that represents
state prison employees, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police
Benevolent Association, also expressed concerns about the governor’s prison
closure proposal. “By once again jamming more inmates into fewer
locations, the state will drive up the inmate-to-officer ratio and increase the
risk of violent incidents inside correctional facilities,” he said.
“Coupled with the state’s consistent inability to sufficiently staff state
facilities, the proposals recently introduced will increase the level of danger
for our members.”

In early 2013 the union launched a $250,000-plus media
campaign, including statewide radio spots, direct mail and newspaper ads to
protest the proposed prison closures. Rowe said that closing Beacon and Bayview
would force more prison employees out of their jobs or require them to work at
other facilities far from their families. However, Cuomo spokesman Rich
Azzopardi said no prison staff members would be laid off.

As New York’s prison population shrinks and facilities
are closed, some advocates for ex-offenders want to use vacant prisons for
reentry programs. Greenhope Services for Women, Inc., an organization that
works with prisoners at Bayview, hopes to turn the empty facility into a center
for job training, educational resources and housing for former prisoners. The
Osbourne Association wants to transform the former Fulton Correctional
Facility, which is currently vacant, into a reentry center.

New York closed seven prisons, camps or work release
centers in 2011, including Fulton, the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility,
Mid-Orange Correctional Facility and Oneida Correctional Facility. Those
closures affected around 2,600 prisoners, who were moved to other state
prisons, and 1,706 employees. According to prison officials, 1,427 of the
affected employees transferred to positions at other correctional facilities,
22 went to different state agencies, 95 retired and 131 were fired.

“An incarceration program is not an employment
program,” Governor Cuomo said during his 2011 State of the State Address.
“If people need jobs, let’s get people jobs. Don’t put other people in
prison to give some people jobs. Don’t put other people in juvenile justice
facilities to give some people jobs. That’s not what this state is all

According to an April 2013 news report, the Beacon and
Bayview facilities will close as part of the approved state budget. Assemblyman
Frank Skartados, who represents the district where Beacon is located, secured
$6 million in state funding to re-purpose the prison after it shuts down in
order to reduce the economic impact on the local community.


In January 2013, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett
announced plans to cut the state’s corrections budget by closing two prisons
while opening a new facility.

The plan includes closing State Correctional
Institution (SCI) Cresson and SCI Greensburg, which is expected to save the
state $23 million in 2014 and more in subsequent years. Most of the 2,400
prisoners at those two facilities will be transferred to a new prison – SCI
Benner in Centre County, which has 2,000 beds. Additionally, the state decided
not to reopen SCI-Waynesburg, which has been vacant since 2003.

“This is really an important step for the
administration and the next step in our corrections reform,” said
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. However, residents in the towns affected by
the prison closures didn’t see it that way.

“It’s going to hurt the restaurants, the hardware
store, every business place here is going to be affected,” said Cresson
Mayor Patrick Mulhern. “Five hundred employees in one fell swoop – that’s
an awful lot.”

Bill Weimer, a spokesperson for the town of
Greensburg, said that “losing the prison jobs will cost the township
$20,000 in local services tax revenue.” He added that the township sewer
authority will “lose $425,000 of its $7 million yearly budget” due to
the prison closure.

Employees at SCI Greensburg – who were blindsided by
the decision to close the facility – protested at the state capital, and the
Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the state’s justification for
shuttering the two prisons. Both SCI Cresson and SCI Greensburg are scheduled
to close by June 30, 2013.

Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association
president Roy Pinto questioned the need to decommission the two facilities,
stating, “If these prisons are closed, the only thing certain is it will
hurt thousands of families and devastate the local economies in those

“I don’t know if you can put a dollar bill on the
loss of a prison to a community,” noted state Senator John Wozniak.
“I look at it as taking a factory out, one that employs 500 people, and
then there is the impact of the vendors.”

Of the 500 staff at SCI Cresson, most will transfer to
positions at other facilities with less than 50 retiring or resigning. The
closures reflect a declining state prison population, according to Corrections
Secretary Wetzel, who said the state would try to sell the SCI Cresson and SCI
Greensburg properties.


In mid-2011, Texas lawmakers voted to close the
Central Unit prison in Sugar Land. Nearly 1,000 prisoners were relocated by
August 2011 when the facility shut down – the state’s first prison closure in
166 years. State officials estimated that closing the facility, formerly known
as the Imperial Unit, could save as much as $25 million annually, mostly in
fixed costs such as staffing and utilities.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) said
moving the prisoners was easy enough due to excess bed space in the state’s
prison system. But it took more time to discontinue other operations at the
Central Unit, which served as a regional warehouse and distribution point for
more than two dozen correctional facilities in the area.

Additionally, since the prison – a former sugar cane
plantation – had several hundred acres of crops, prisoners and guards had to be
brought in from another unit to temporarily continue the farming operations.
Prisoners were still being used to farm at the Central Unit in January 2013.

“I thought it was closed, long gone,” said
state Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
“Why’s it taken the state this long to close Central?” The prison is
expected to completely close by July 2013 and the property will then be sold.

The Texas legislature’s recently-proposed budget calls
for new efficiencies in the state’s penal system, including additional prison
closures. The TDCJ has over 12,000 vacant beds and lawmakers want to cut costs
by shutting down facilities that are no longer needed. Two privately-operated
prisons, the 2,200-bed Dawson State Jail and 2,100-bed Mineral Wells Pre-Parole
Transfer Facility, both run by Corrections Corporation of America, were
designated for the budgetary chopping block.

The union that represents the state’s prison employees
did not oppose the closures, likely because the two facilities are privately
operated. AFSCME local president Lance Lowry even suggested closing a third
CCA-run state jail, citing poor management.

While there was consensus among lawmakers to close
Dawson, which was expensive to operate and had recently experienced several
high-profile deaths, some legislators were hesitant to shut down Mineral Wells
due to the impact on the local economy – despite the fact that the facility has
been repeatedly cited for contract violations and security problems.

In May 2013, the state House and Senate agreed to let
the Texas Board of Criminal Justice decide which two facilities would be
closed, and $97 million was removed from the state budget in anticipation of
the closures. Some of those savings will be used to fund pay raises for public
employees, including state prison guards.

BOP Bucks the Trend

There have been no recent prison closures in the
federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) – largely due to the continued increase in the
federal prison population. While the state prison population nationwide
decreased from 1.407 million in 2009 to 1.381 million at year-end 2011 (a 1.7%
reduction), the BOP’s population rose from 208,118 to 216,362 – an almost 4%
increase – over the same period of time.

Much of that growth can be attributed to more federal
prosecutions for immigration-related offenses, particularly along the southern
U.S. border. As a result there has been a substantial increase in the number of
Hispanics sent to federal prisons. [See: PLN, May 2012, p.26].

Consequently, a fiscal year 2013 federal
appropriations bill included $25.8 million to fund up to 1,600 new Criminal
Alien Requirement (CAR) prison beds to house immigrant prisoners; the new beds
would be contracted to a private prison company. The BOP issued a bid solicitation
for up to 1,600 CAR beds in August 2012. On September 10, 2012, a coalition of
more than 90 organizations sent a joint letter to members of Congress urging
them to reject the appropriation for the CAR beds.

“The BOP’s request for additional funding to
incarcerate immigrants is the direct result of a prosecution program known as
Operation Streamline. Prior to Operation Streamline, which launched in 2005,
the majority of immigrants apprehended after entering the United States without
documentation were deported through immigration procedures,” the joint
letter noted. “Under Operation Streamline, immigrants apprehended crossing
the border without permission are instead referred for federal criminal

Although several private prison companies responded to
the BOP’s bid solicitation, the CAR contract has not yet been awarded because
funding was not appropriated due to the failure of Congress to pass the federal
budget, resulting in the sequester and budget reductions.


Prison closures unsurprisingly follow a fairly typical
pattern. When the closing of a prison is announced – usually due to budget cuts
– there are often protests by prison employees and the unions that represent
them, sometimes resulting in lawsuits. Local officials and residents voice
concerns about job losses and the loss of low-cost labor provided by prison
work crews. State lawmakers are sometimes swayed by opposition from the unions,
prison employees and local communities, and hearings are held. If the prison
closure proceeds, few staff members actually lose their jobs; rather, they are
usually transferred to other prisons. Similarly, prisoners are simply moved to
other facilities.

Thus, if prison closures are to have a broad and
enduring impact, advocates of carceral reform must confront the difference
between means and ends, tactic and strategy. Prison closures do not always
result in prison population reductions, and this is precisely the paradox of
advocating for change. In other words, closing a prison, although seemingly
auspicious, is not an adequate substitute for decreasing correctional
populations or for reducing our nation’s reliance on the ideology of
incarceration – particularly for those convicted of minor offenses.

Thoreau once said that while there are thousands
hacking at the branches of injustice, only a few dare strike at the root. While
prisons represent the branches, the political, social and economic policies
that underpin our justice system are at the root of the problem.

Criminal justice activists and prisoners’ rights
advocates must not let what they may perceive as momentary victories, in the
form of prison closures, perpetuate the very practices of mass incarceration
they critique. That is, while a small number of correctional facilities have
closed, the U.S. still incarcerates around 2.2 million people in jails and
state and federal prisons – far more than any other nation. Additionally, some
states are building more prisons due to their expanding prison populations and
the federal prison system continues to grow. In October 2012, the State of
Illinois sold its maximum-security Thomson Correctional Center, which never
fully opened due to budget problems, to the BOP for $165 million. The 1,600-bed
facility will now be used to house federal rather than state prisoners.

The recent modest decline in the overall U.S. prison
population over the past two years presents us with a moment to think before we
act; it forces us to wrestle with the contradictions endemic to modern penal
reform. Prison closures can beget openings, and openings can beget
opportunities – opportunities to confront and challenge our collective
understanding of why, who and how we punish, and by what means we can end our
reliance on mass incarceration and effect lasting criminal justice reform.


Sources: “On the Chopping Block 2012: State
Prison Closings” by The Sentencing Project (Dec. 2012), Bureau of Justice
Statistics, New York Times, CBS-Sacramento, Correctional News, Truthout, Gotham
Gazette, Wall Street Journal, American-Statesman, Colorado Public News, Post
Gazette, CorrectionsOne, Pittsburg Tribune Review, The Ithaca Journal, Illinois
State Journal Register, Times Union, NPR, Southern Springfield Bureau, Maine
Press Herald, Huffington Post, Forbes, WGEM, KGWN TV, Marion Star, NECN, Las
Vegas Review Journal, GoErie, Florida Today, WKYT, MSNBC, Colorado Connection,,,,,,,,,,, Associated Press,,, New York Daily News,,, Des Moines Register,,,,,,,

(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)