By KATE MOSTACCIO
PEF leaders and staff hit the ground running as soon as news broke that the state is closing two correctional facilities and an annex, effective March 30, 2021, impacting hundreds of PEF members at those worksites.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) identified Gowanda Correctional Facility, Watertown Correctional Facility and Clinton Annex for closure, citing in a memorandum to employees “the incarcerated population has continued to decline significantly” and the closures must begin immediately to achieve “the savings associated with the state’s financial plan for this agency.”
“There is never a good time to find out your job is disappearing, but this holiday season at the end of an exceptionally traumatic year is especially tough,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “Our hearts go out to the PEF members now forced to make life-changing decisions. We are committed to helping them navigate the situation and continue their fulfilling careers with New York State.”
DOCCS pledged to “make every effort to assist each facility employee to transfer into an available, funded, vacant position at another correctional facility within the Department, or with another state agency,” in accordance with Civil Service and union contracts.
PEF leaders vow to hold them to their pledge.
“We will find a home for everybody,” DOCCS Labor/Management Chair and Executive Board member Steven Drake said in a call with other Division leaders and PEF staff. “We’ve been successful in the past to find places close to home. We have a lot of vacancies in the Department of Corrections and they have been vacant because of the anticipation of these closures.” Drake said DOCCS is confident they will be able to place everyone.
The union stands behind the impacted employees and will fight for their rights.
“The state does not anticipate any layoffs, but we are concerned about job security and quality of life as workers transition to new assignments and we will fight to make sure our members see no reduction in their paychecks,” President Spence said.
Meetings at each facility are slated for early to mid-January, Drake said. Central Office staff will discuss Civil Service protocols and procedures so every member knows their rights during the closure process, including issues of seniority and bumping rights. PEF field representatives, council leaders and labor/management members will be attending the facility meetings alongside impacted members.
DOCCS Labor Management Co-Chair Sharon Lamb said each member would receive a folder from DOCCS with detailed information and actions will need to be taken quickly.
“A lot of individual answers will come out of those folders,” she said.
The timing of the closures puts the health and safety of inmates and staff at risk, President Spence stated.
“We are disappointed that Gov. Cuomo chose to close these three facilities at this time,” he said. “We understand the fiscal crisis the state is facing, but there is also an ongoing health crisis within the walls of New York’s correctional facilities. Why crowd the system during a second wave of the coronavirus? The health and safety of all impacted needs to be considered. The rushed closure of these facilities and the transfer of incarcerated individuals and staff who may have been exposed to COVID-19 defies the advice of public health advocates and puts communities at risk.”
Move dates for inmates have not been established, Drake said, but PEF did ask that all inmates be tested for COVID-19 before being moved and that current COVID-positive and quarantined inmates would move last.
Many of the specialty programs at the locations slated to close will transfer to neighboring facilities, Drake said, and talks are underway to find homes for each program. But, the disruption in services couldn’t come at a worse time.
“The skilled PEF members currently employed at these facilities provide the critical mental health, wellness, education and job training support necessary for incarcerated individuals to successfully reintegrate back into their communities,” Spence said. “PEF supports reasonable, responsible and appropriate criminal justice reform that provides resources to create real avenues for oversight, rehabilitation and reintegration back into the community. We are concerned those avenues will be blocked for some individuals as a result of this shortsighted decision.”
PEF has information on its website pertaining to reductions in workforce. Access those resources here.