How will New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to shut down a good-size chunk of the state’s correctional system affect the people whose livelihoods depend on the prison industry? The Sunday Metro section of the New York Times takes a look at the community around the upstate Camp Gabriels facility, in the northern Adirondacks, to track the effect of a bursting prison bubble:
Closing those prisons…would save the state millions of dollars, free up money for the treatment of sex offenders and mentally ill inmates, and finance programs like anger management and vocational training, meant to prepare prisoners for their release.
But for Mrs. Gonyea [a registered nurse who runs the medical department at Camp Gabriels], her neighbors and co-workers, the prospect of losing Camp Gabriels has stoked fear and doubt — about their future and about the future of their communities, which have come to depend on the prison over the years to survive.
It’s a refreshing angle on an otherwise familiar story, and it complicates the picture a bit. While we rightly and readily celebrate the shutdown of such prisons–which, remember, sprouted up to house nonviolent victims of the Rockefeller drug laws–it’s not often that we consider the impact it will have on the working-class staff who make those facilities run. These aren’t the people who were pushing the odious policies; they are, for the most part, rural folks who happened to live in the remote towns where the prisons were built, and who entered the system because they needed work and saw an opportunity.
There is no shortage of abusive, violent sociopaths on staff in such prisons, I realize, and good riddance to them. Correctional officers’ unions (who in this case are protecting their workers by ensuring transfers to other New York facilities) are another nasty bag of worms, but I’ll save these side notes for another post. My thoughts here are prompted by the sympathetic depiction of Joy Gonyea, the woman featured in the first paragraph of this piece. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that she is neither a sociopath nor an ideologue, and that there are many like her who are understandably anxious about losing their jobs just as a recession hits.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m thrilled to hear that Spitzer is courageous enough to close down these unnecessary warehouses for nonviolent felons. They need to go, the policy that brought them into being needs to go, the politicians and think tanks that have sustained them over years need to go–all of it should be chucked in the trash like yesterday’s scraps, the sooner the better. I merely think it’s important to remember that rolling back the drug prison boom, while it will save money, comes with a cost, too. It’s a cost we must be willing to pay, but it’s real.