It’s not often that the Manhattan District Attorney and the American Civil Liberties Union cheer policy initiatives involving prisons and criminal justice issues. But they did in reaction to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address on Wednesday. Cuomo called for a range of reforms, including a revival of a 2014 plan providing college education to inmates in prisons and initiatives geared toward reducing the number of inmates in state prisons. “We are better at building and equipping a prison cell than a classroom,” says Cuomo.
In a lead-up to the address, Cuomo announced Sunday at a church service in Harlem that he plans to close more state prisons in addition to the 23 adult and juvenile prisons he has already shuttered. Given that, you’d think it would be hard to find someone who opposes Cuomo’s plans for alternatives to incarceration: helping prisoners get an education so they have a chance at getting good jobs and becoming productive, law-abiding citizens.
But, as the old journalism cliché goes, you have to follow the money. Just look north to the districts of State Senator Betty Little, Assemblywoman Janet Duprey and Assemblyman Dan Stec. All are Republicans. Yes, they’re interested in jobs and education. But not the kind the governor is talking about — they want their constituents to keep their jobs as prison guards.
“It’s very difficult to face any more prison closures in the North Country,” Little tells the Voice. “A lot of people in the Upstate area are corrections officers, and it’s one of the only jobs that kept families together because they could stay in the North Country and get health insurance and pensions. They’re good jobs.” She adds that the region becomes a virtual ghost town when prisons close because other local businesses go down with them. “Without our prisons, there’s nothing here. There’s no hope.”
Duprey tells the Voice that giving criminals a “free ride” for college education is wrong, and that people in her district are already “struggling with financing a higher education” for their children. She proposes that money should go toward drug treatment and prevention programs to reduce violent crime and potential criminals, and that funds should also go towards more job skills training. Duprey laments the three prisons that have already been closed in her rural district, and that no new uses have been found for them.
“It’s always economically difficult when you lose jobs and facilities in small communities,” Duprey says. “Our C.O.’s would order lunch from local delis, our little mom-and-pop shops, and brought a vibrancy to the community that is now gone.”
This standpoint befuddles Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“We shouldn’t put people in jail to provide jobs for prison guards,“ says Lieberman. “There’s a peace dividend to be gotten from stopping mass incarceration. There’s no question that society reaps an enormous benefit when people come out [of prison] not dehumanized and have skills so they can reenter society in a constructive rather than an antisocial manner. It’s important to recognize we have decades of damage to undo, and the people who have suffered terribly at the hands of past policies are black and Latino communities.”
Glenn E. Martin, president of JustLeadershipUSA, which focuses on policy reforms and criminal justice, was even more blunt in his criticism.
“What that senator is responding to is a very real fact that we have allowed prisons to serve as an economic engine for upstate communities,” says Martin, who himself spent six years in a New York state prison. “There’s a truism about what she’s saying, but it’s not who we are as Americans and New Yorkers — we should be doing what works to reduce recidivism.” He adds, “If she spent as much political energy advocating for communities that end up in our justice system, it would be a win-win.”
At first glance, it might not seem to matter that three upstate Republicans disagree with Cuomo’s criminal justice initiatives or that keeping jobs for guards is more important than the needs for the larger society. But for years, the conservative upstate constituency have blocked a number of reforms.
In his address, Cuomo detailed a plan for ensuring a college education for about 1,000 inmates in the coming five years, paid for using $7.5 million in asset forfeiture funds from the office of Cyrus Vance, Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney, along with other funding coming from private sources that would match it.
“I commend Governor Cuomo on his bold agenda for our state, and in particular, the priority he has placed on criminal justice initiatives that will benefit New Yorkers of all ages, backgrounds, and education levels,” Vance says in a release.