How Governor Paterson Could Build a Legacy

A recently-released Marist poll revealed that 50 percent of New Yorkers support Gov. David Paterson’s desire to complete his term. And now it is reported that Investigators have found little direct evidence that Gov. Paterson tampered with a witness in a domestic abuse case against one of his top aides.

This brings some good news to Paterson, who has received more than a few setbacks in the past few months. Before he leaves office the governor needs to clean up New York’s incarceration system and shut down its near-empty prisons.

In January, Paterson announced in his proposed budget for 2010 the closing of four prisons in Clinton, Wayne, Essex and St. Lawrence counties. His administration said the closings would be accommodated because the prison system has seen a steady drop in inmate levels in recent years. This drop can also be attributed to the recent, historic Rockefeller drug law reforms implemented by the governor.

Brian Fisher, the Commissioner of Corrections, confirmed Paterson’s call to close prisons in recent testimony he gave to state legislators. He said that the number of prisoners is falling and will continue to fall. Fisher said that closing the four prisons will save $45 million a year.

I agree with Fisher, a great guy who rose through the ranks of the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) to become its commissioner. He knows the system inside out. It makes sense to close half-empty prisons, especially in these hard economic times, and it would help balance the budget.

But the union representing correction officers is taking offense at the proposed closings. It is now putting out fear-mongering radio ads in order to stop the closing of these prisons. Donn Rowe, President of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association (NYSSCOPBA), claims that “The Department of Corrections’ proposal to close the four prisons is a direct threat to the public safety of all New Yorkers.” This is clearly false propaganda, and the union is hiding behind the shield of public safety to promote its own agenda.

In a recent New York Times story, Jim Dwyer wrote that in the four prisons the governor has proposed closing, there are 547 employees and 851 inmates — one state employee for every 1.5 prisoners.

Some of the prisons to be shut down are Lyon Mountain (Clinton County), which had 91 employees and 135 inmates; Ogdensburg Correctional Facility (St. Lawrence County), which had 287 employees and 474 inmates; and the minimum security portion of a complex in Red Creek (Wayne County), which had a staff of 67 for a grand total of 71 inmates.

We need to correct the waste of scarce tax dollars spent on these near-empty institutions. These prisons have become cash cows for the correction officers’ union and political leaders in rural upstate communities that house these facilities. Gov. Paterson is clearly looking at the economic waste generated by the archaic prison-industrial complex. In leaving office, his efforts to substitute a smarter economic approach will be part of his legacy. Hopefully, it will lead to a better functioning criminal justice system and it will be more cost effective for the people of New York.

Our friends at the Fortune Society and Citizens Against Recidivism have launched a campaign. Please take 2 minutes to call Governor Paterson today at 518.474.8390 and say, “Since the prison population is down, please follow through with the proposal to close the four (4) upstate prisons. NYS should be investing in Alternatives to Incarceration and reentry, not prisons.” In addition, please call your local Assemblyman and Senator with the same message.

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at:


Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.