Would Prison Closures Prevent Children's Visits with Their Moms?

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In his budget plan for the coming year, Governor Cuomo proposed to close two of the state’s prisons for women: the Beacon Correctional Facility in Dutchess County and the Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan. If the proposal goes through, the prisons will be the 8th and 9th to close under Cuomo’s watch.

Some advocates for prisoners’ rights warn that the closures could make it harder for incarcerated New York City women to keep in contact with their children.

The Bayview facility is the only women’s prison inside New York City. Beacon is two hours north, and is the only minimum-security prison for women in the southern part of the state. Most of the state’s other prisons are much farther—currently, nearly 40 percent of women prisoners are housed at Albion Correctional Facility, which is eight hours from New York City.

“Being incarcerated close to home can make or break a family’s ability to stay connected,” wrote Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York,  in testimony for a state budget hearing yesterday. “For children, frequent visiting and strong family connections can reduce the trauma of having an incarcerated parent and provide the support they need to become healthy adults.  For mothers, not receiving visits means not only the devastation of losing touch with their children but also sometimes losing their parental rights to their children forever.”

Approximately 2,300 women are incarcerated in New York state prisons, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Nearly half of them (48 percent) are from New York City and its suburbs, and 70 percent have children. An estimated 2,000 New York City kids have a mother in a state prison.

Advocates say they support the governor’s effort to close prisons, but that there has been a disproportionate focus on minimum-security facilities, prisons that provide work-release programs, and prisons that are near New York City. “We strongly support prison closures, but our position is that these particular closures should not move forward until there is a plan in place to replicate the opportunities they provide to women and their families,” says Kraft-Stolar. Closing prisons that keep inmates close to home “undermines the very goals that the governor has put out in terms of reducing recidivism and keeping families healthy,” she adds.

Governor Cuomo described the Beacon and Bayview facilities as underutilized and inefficient. Both have operated under capacity in recent years, and Bayview has remained empty since it was evacuated during Hurricane Sandy. The state’s benchmark for prison spending is just over $34,000 per inmate. Beacon operates at well over double that rate ($69,863 per prisoner) and Bayview’s costs have been even higher ($74,385).

The governor projects that closing the facilities would save the state nearly $19 million in the coming fiscal year and $62 million in 2014-15. Part of that revenue would come from selling the Bayview facility, which looks onto the Hudson River in the upscale Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

In an unlikely meeting of minds, the state’s prison guards union—which has traditionally sought to protect jobs by opposing all prison closures—echoed the criticisms put forth by prisoners’ rights advocates. “Both Beacon and Bayview provide critical alcohol and substance abuse treatment programs as well as work release initiatives,” Donn Rowe, the president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, wrote in a statement.

“Closing Bayview would also mean shutting down the only women’s correctional facility south of the Tappan Zee Bridge, making it harder to incarcerate women in facilities near their homes. Since the vast majority of inmates return to their home communities after serving their sentences, we think that would be a mistake,” Rowe wrote.