The North Country has lost about 550 prison jobs in just the last year, a huge hit for the region’s economy. But the job losses are not necessarily tied to the closure of prisons in the region or the plummeting inmate numbers. The real reason is more complicated.
There are two big trends unfolding at prisons in the North Country. The first is that the region’s inmate population has been cut in half in the last few years. Declining inmate numbers statewide have led to prison closures, including two here in the North Country this spring.
The second trend has to do with staffing. This time last year 6,175 people worked in state prisons in the North Country, today that number’s down to around 5,623, according to data from the state and NYSCOPBA, the state’s prison union.
John Roberts, who represents North Country prison workers for NYSCOPBA, says some of that decline has to do with the recent closures, because of officers who didn’t want to be transferred.
“The closures did bring out some retirements of people that didn’t want to travel, were eligible to retire, (were) financially able to retire.”
Roberts says, though, there’s more going on here. To really understand the loss of 550 prison jobs in the last year, you have to go back to the 1980s and ‘90s, back to the prison boom. The state was building new prisons and hiring a lot of officers, who are now eligible to retire.
“People have kind of hit that 25, 30 year time where it’s time for them to retire, if it’s what they decide to do, or they become eligible to retire.”
The recent retirement boom comes at a time when officers are being asked to work longer shifts, which Roberts says is the second reason for the staffing decline.
“Many people in the jails have been quitting in the last several years because they get stuck quite a bit, which means it’s time to go home and they get mandated to stay for another eight hours and that gets old after a while.”
The state Department of Corrections disputes that account and says mandatory overtime isn’t driving retirements, calling the union’s claim “inaccurate and reckless.” What is clear is that as more officers have retired in recent years, they haven’t been replaced at the same rate.
The pandemic forced the state to cancel training academies last year for new officers. DOCCS says three training sessions this month will help reverse that trend, but Roberts worries there’s less interest this year.
He cites the low graduation rate from the training session in April, which he sees as the third reason for the staffing decline.
“They started with a smaller class and a lot of those people have since quit. I think there’s only going to be approximately low 40s graduating.”
That’s compared to the average graduating class of about 80. Roberts says staffing levels may rebound a bit, but not like they were in the 1990s. Since then, New York’s inmate population has been cut by more than half, and more than 20 correctional facilities have been shuttered, including six here in the North Country.
Criminal justice advocates say the region needs to move away from the prison industry, away from a system that disproportionately incarcerates Black and Brown people. State prisons are still one of the top employers in the North Country, with an average salary of more than $67,000 a year.