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Staffing Shortage Could Result in up to Five Prison Closures in NY This Year

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In the late 1990s, more than 22,000 New Yorkers worked inside prisons around the state. Today, those staffing levels are down to about 15,000.

“Right now, we are in a critical staffing crisis," said Daniel Martuscello, head of the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Martuscello testified in front of state lawmakers last week. A lot of what he talked about was the governor’s proposal to close up to five prisons this year. Prison closures have been a key priority for the state over the last decade as the inmate population has declined. But this time around, state officials say the proposed closures are more due to staffing shortages.

Martuscello fielded questions last week from lawmakers like Assemblyman Erik Dilan from Brooklyn about why the state thinks its necessary to close up to five prisons this year. Martuscello said a big part of it had to do with a lack of staff.

“We have 3,800 vacancies in the system, of which 1,900 are correction officers," explained Martuscello.

“So the main impetus for the closure of up to five are for staffing reasons?" asked Dilan.

“That is the main impetus, but additionally, we’ve seen a 55% reduction in the incarcerated population since our high,” Martuscello responded.

The highest prison population in New York was back in 1999, when about 73,000 people were behind bars in state correctional facilities. Today, the prison population is down by more than half, to about 33,000.

That’s due to a few key things, including criminal justice reforms, dropping crime rates and repealed drug laws.

There are nine state prisons around the North Country, which currently employ about 4,800 people. Martuscello said last week that if the state closes more prisons this year, no one will be forced out of work.

"There’s going to be no layoffs through this process. We’ll work cooperatively with our employees, our unions. I have jobs within the system to absorb everyone."

Martuscello declined to offer any details about which prisons might face closures this year. Three state prisons have been closed around the North Country in recent years, in Watertown Ogdensburg, and Moriah.

During that time, the region's prison’s population has dropped by 28% while staffing levels are down by 22%. 

This story was originally published on 2/1/2024 on NCPR.