When the state tries to close a prison, prisons can’t keep up
A few years ago, the state of New York was trying to close an infamous prison in suburban Rochester.
It was so overcrowded that it was closing its gates to everyone except the most dangerous offenders, and the prison was so crowded that the prison couldn’t even keep up with the demand for inmates.
But with a few hundred prisoners, the prison had the capacity to house about half the prison population.
“It was a huge problem,” says John Storch, executive director of the New York Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, which helped lobby the state to close the prison.
The state had to do a lot of math.
How much would it cost to close one of its prisons?
How much money would it take to keep the prison running for an entire year?
And what would happen if the state tried to close it again?
At the time, the most likely scenario was that the state would try to close all the prisons in New York, and then rehire all of them.
And this was when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had already launched a major effort to close prisons in the state, including some of the most notorious prisons in America, such as the Rikers Island jail.
The idea was to move inmates to other prisons, and get them out of prison as quickly as possible.
But as prisons like Rikers grew in population, and as the state’s inmate population grew, the new capacity in the prison grew too, and so the cost to keep it running also grew.
To close one prison at a time, Cuomo decided to keep all of its prison beds open.
He closed some prisons, like the infamous St. Louis Correctional Center in Missouri, and rehomed prisoners in other prisons.
The cost of rehoming in those other prisons was going up, and eventually the state was forced to end all of those rehomes, too.
“I was sitting at my desk at the time and I said, ‘OK, well, that’s a little bit expensive,'” Storp says.
“And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to do that.'”
The state is now trying to find other ways to close its prisons.
“We’re not going to go down that road again,” Storh says.
There are still some prisons that are still open and run by the state and that can keep the inmates in, like New York City’s prison at the John Jay Correctional Facility in Brooklyn.
But the new prison is in a different place, it’s not at the same time as other prisons that have been closed.
The prison is still in the process of being shut down, and some prisoners have already been transferred to other facilities in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island.
So it will take a while before we know how much the state will spend to keep up to 60% of its prisoners there.
And it will be expensive to close those prisons as well.
“When you have a facility that has capacity that’s not going up and that is not keeping up with demand, that is going to be costly,” Sturch says.
And that’s where the new bill comes in.
The new legislation will direct the Department of Correction to pay for the cost of the state prison to be rehoused in other facilities.
That’s a move that would allow the state some flexibility in how it manages its prisons and keep them running at the right level.
But there is a catch.
It’s a bill that’s going to take years to pass through the state legislature, and it’s going out of existence in the very near future.
But that won’t stop the state from trying to keep its prisons running as quickly and efficiently as possible—and there are other ways the state can do that.
It has a plan to hire private prisons to take inmates who have been released from prison.
But Storph says he thinks that strategy could backfire, and could make it harder to close prison systems as quickly.
“That would be a bad thing, because we wouldn’t be able to keep those prisons open,” Storr says.
Instead, the bill would provide money to private companies that could rehouse inmates in the facilities that are already being closed.
And the plan includes other options, such a program to let state and local governments take inmates away from the prisons and give them to nonprofits and faith-based groups.
But those programs are still a long way off, and they’re not likely to be able even to begin to work until at least 2026.
“At some point, we’re going to have to make a choice: We’re going back to a public prison system, or we’re not,” Storb says.