Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009


Jailhouse Blues

Kansas, New Hampshire and Michigan are singing the jailhouse blues as those states—like many others—are shutting down state prison facilities. Although some states are taking advantage of alternative corrections and criminal justice strategies to reduce prison populations, when a prison is closed, most often jobs are lost. And losing jobs due to prison closures is a hard pill to swallow in this recession.
By Mikel Chavers
People in small-town Stockton, Kan., got used to seeing the work crews from the local prison mowing the city’s lawns and keeping the parks clean. In fact, the inmate work crews were a welcome blessing as far as most of the town’s 1,500 or so residents were concerned.
But those work crews won’t be lending a helping hand anymore. After severe budget cuts, the state was forced to close down the 128-bed Norton Correctional Facility East Unit prison in Stockton and the inmates were moved to other prisons.
The work crews were a “really a big impact—most people don’t understand,” said Keith Schlaegel, city manager for Stockton. “They did so much work around town. We could have our paid employees do other things.”
And in a small town where the minimum security prison facility was a huge economic benefit, it’s not just the work crews the city will be missing.
“Job-wise, it’s another big hit,” Schlaegel said. His small, rural town lost 32 state jobs as a result of the closure.
The town also lost five to six contract jobs such as food service workers and other contract providers, according to Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz.
Other small, rural communities like Stockton were especially hard-hit when Kansas shut down prisons, Werholtz said. Often, the prisons were a huge economic driver for the small towns. Stockton, for example, is “in a part of the state that is losing its population,” Werholtz said. “They are looking for economic anchors to keep their kids from moving away.”
But incarceration is expensive. It costs, on average, more than $20,000 a year to house a state prisoner, according to the Pew Center on the States, but costs vary from state to state. In New York, for example, where the state is shutting down some prison camps and prison annex buildings, it cost $50,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate, according to New York Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry.
In these hard economic times, budget cuts are forcing states to shut down prisons, something possible only with a shrinking prisoner population, experts say.
Michigan, for example, is suffering from cuts to the state’s corrections budget just as other states are. But Michigan is also using alternative strategies that are cheaper than keeping people in jail. So the state is in a position to close even more prisons.

Budget Cuts Drive Prison Closures

Stockton wasn’t the only small town in Kansas rocked by the prison closures. The state closed six prison facilities—five so far this year and one last year. (See sidebar.)
By closing those facilitates and shuffling around other prisoners, the Kansas Department of Corrections cut 447 prison beds out of the state’s budget, according to Werholtz. That means a savings of around $7.8 million just by shutting down prisons.
To accommodate some of the displaced prisoners, Kansas corrections had to re-open a cell house on the campus of one of the state’s larger prisons for inmates who were moved out of closing facilities.
The main goal of closing these prisons was to save money, Werholtz said. The corrections department was under some pretty hefty budget pressures to the tune of more than $20 million. And although closing prisons alone couldn’t bridge that budget gap, they made up a chunk of the cuts.
“We were needing to ultimately cut about $23.5 million out of our budget,” he said.
Most of the facilities closed in Kansas were smaller, lower security prisons or boot camps, which serve as an alternative to traditional prisons.
“We first looked at the small facilities because we had a surplus of male minimum security beds because we’d been pretty successful in driving the prison population down,” Werholtz said.
So Kansas was in a position to shut down prisons to save on operating costs. But it wasn’t all so straightforward.
Some of the closed facilities, such as the ones located in Toronto, Osawatomie and Stockton, just weren’t needed for the state’s current prison population. “They were beds that we did not need at that time,” Werholtz said.
But for others, budget cuts absolutley forced closure, he said.
“When you get to some of the other facilities that we closed, I would rather not have done that, because we were shutting down some beds that either we did need or they, in the case of the boot camps or conservation camps, provided a sentencing alternative that kept people out of prison for longer periods of time,” said Werholtz, who admits he’s not a big fan of the boot camps in general.
The additional facilities—if they had remained open—also meant the state was able to spread out the prison population, ensuring prison facilities weren’t so densely populated, Werholtz said.
New Hampshire is in the same bind as Kansas. The state closed its first prison in July. At 2:30 p.m., July 1, the final six inmates were moved from the Lakes Region Facility in Laconia, N.H. The Department of Corrections Honor Guard gave the facility an official closure, retiring the New Hampshire and American flags flown over the facility for many years, according to a New Hampshire Department of Corrections press release.
The closure was due to the “tough economy and budget constraints,” said Jeff Lyons, spokesman for the state’s Department of Corrections.
The New Hampshire Department of Corrections had to deal with a budget that was $2 million less than the previous year, sealing the prison’s fate.
“We all had to change the way we do business,” Lyons said. “This was our way.”
Though the facility employed 100 people, the state was able to move employees to other facilities to avoid laying off so many.
“No one likes to do layoffs of course,” Lyons said.
When the department began plans to close the prison facility, it expected hundreds of layoffs as a result, Lyons said. But by savings gleaned from reducing or getting rid of overtime pay in some cases, the department instead laid off approximately 34 people, he said.
But since closing the prison, many correctional officers have been called back due to retirements and attrition, Lyons said.
As for the building, it will probably never be used as a prison facility again.
The buildings and original grounds of the Lakes Region Facility dated back to the early 1900s—it used to be the Laconia State School, a place where mentally challenged children and children with disabilities were institutionalized.
In 1991, the state’s department of corrections inherited the prison facility and because it was such an old building, it was “never really conducive to being a prison,” Lyons said. The building suffered from maintenance issues that contributed to expensive upkeep, Lyons said.
The old prison cost the state $10 million a year to operate—a cost the state can now avoid, according to Lyons.
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